Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab)
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Referring to a faith-based debate as an “EVEL debate” might not be the best phraseology.
In addition to being the Front-Bench spokesperson, I should declare that I am the convenor of the Catholic legislators’ network in Parliament. It is important that I put that on the record. It is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West, who is an assiduous campaigner for his constituents. Both of us would like to see a day where we are talking not about academisation, but about the co-operatisation of more of our schools up and down the country. He is the country’s leading campaigner for the co-operative movement, in my opinion.
My second interest to declare is that I am a product of Loreto College in Manchester. Having grown up in a council flat and a council house, going to Loreto at the age of 16 widened my horizons unbelievably. It turned me on to politics. I had a lecturer called Colleen Harris, who is still alive. I want to get it in Hansard that I would not be in this place had it not been for her. Coming down here for the first time and seeing Parliament was one of the most amazing experiences that I got from going to that sixth form.
I was glad to visit the college the other week, to campaign to raise the rate, and to speak to the principal, Peter McGhee, who is also the principal of St John Rigby College in Wigan. It is great to know that my principal, Sister Patricia, is still on Loreto’s governing body. The only bit of the college that is left is the 19th-century grade II listed chapel. Otherwise, the college has been rebuilt completely, and serves the whole community of Manchester and Greater Manchester. In terms of social mobility, there was nowhere like it. It helped people from poor backgrounds such as my own to move forward, along with Xaverian College in Rusholme.
The Catholic Church is the biggest provider of education on the planet, and tomorrow 1.2 billion Catholics around the world will be celebrating one of their most solemn feasts: Ash Wednesday. It is a period of reflection, fast and abstinence, but for sixth-form colleges in this country the last 10 years have been a period of fast and abstinence. I want to put some of the figures that have already been stated on to the record. Since 2010, funding for 16 to 18-year-olds has been cut sharply. That is why we are talking about this matter today. Costs have risen, the needs of students have become more complex and the Government have demanded much more of colleges.
Recent research from London Economics found that, in real terms, sixth-form colleges received £1,380 less per student in 2016-17 than in 2010-11—a 22% decline in funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that funding per student aged 16 to 18 has seen the biggest squeeze of all stages of education for young people in recent years. We have had debate after debate in this Chamber about schools, but school funding started to be cut only in about 2015. Since then, about £1.7 billion has been taken out of the system. However, we have seen a continual attack on sixth-form colleges since 2010.
Sixth-form colleges are in a strange place. It is interesting that the Minister and I speak for stand-alone sixth-form colleges, but the responsibility for further education colleges sits with our counterparts in our teams. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West highlighted in his very good speech, funding per sixth-former is £4,545. That is 15% lower than for 11 to 16-year-olds, which is £5,341, and half the average university tuition fee, which is £8,901.
The impact on students could not be clearer. A recent funding impact survey found that 50% of schools and colleges have dropped courses in modern foreign languages as a result of funding pressures. As has been pointed out, 34% have dropped STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, maths—and 67% have reduced student support services and extracurricular activities. Some 77% of schools are teaching students in larger class sizes. The national funding rate for 16 and 17-year-olds has remained frozen at £4,000 per student since 2013-14. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East pointed out, the rate for 18-year-olds is even lower, at £3,300 per student.
There is only one way to ensure that schools and colleges can continue to deliver competitively good sixth-form education, and that is to raise the rate. I congratulate the Sixth Form Colleges Association on its fine campaign on the issue. According to London Economics, raising the rate would protect student support services, mental health support and minority subject support, and would increase non-qualification time, extracurricular activities and work experience for those in sixth-form colleges. The Government like to target funding at individual subjects or qualifications, but that has had little impact; there are just higgledy-piggledy pots of money here and there for sixth-form colleges to bid for. As the hon. Member for Harrow East stated, the £500 million for T-levels—the Government’s proposed suite of technical qualifications—will not materialise until 2023.
The key point that has been made today is that the option to convert is not currently available to Catholic sixth-form colleges. Colleges that do not change status lose out in multiple ways, as has been mentioned. First, although school sixth forms and 16-to-19 academies have their VAT costs refunded, sixth-form colleges do not. That leaves the average sixth-form college with £386,000 less to spend on the frontline education of students each year.
Secondly, as has also been pointed out, sixth-form colleges face a further financial disadvantage due to the Government’s implementation of the teachers’ pay grant. In September 2018 the Government extended the teachers’ pay grant to cover 16-to-19 academies, but not sixth-form colleges. The Minister has to tell us why that is the case. Extending the teachers’ pay grant would make a huge difference. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West said in an intervention, we really need an answer from the Minister on that.
VAT and the teachers’ pay grant are the two examples of how sixth-form colleges are treated differently from 16-to-19 academies and schools. One solution would be to address both anomalies without requiring sixth-form colleges to change their legal status, but the other—and perhaps more realistic—solution would be for the Government to explore some legislative change. At the moment, Catholic sixth-form colleges will not convert for fear of losing their religious character, particularly if there were some sort of judicial review or legal challenge.
Non-Catholic sixth-form colleges have benefited from £10 million for conversion. That is another anomaly—Catholic sixth-form colleges have not been allowed to bid for that money, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) pointed out. He also spoke admirably about Carmel College in his constituency. The Government should commit to allowing Catholic sixth-form colleges to change their status after the March deadline in the area reviews, and ensure that they can access Government funding.
Catholic sixth-form colleges are prevented from converting to academies as their religious character, protected under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, would not be maintained under current Government rules. They suggest that they would lose protections in areas of the curriculum, acts of worship and governance. Most Catholic sixth-form colleges in this country provide a religious education basis, which is not funded through their Government funding, and extracurricular activities such as mass and prayer, which are unfunded, and chaplaincy work. The key nature of a Catholic sixth-form college and the essence of its governance, and the reason that they are education institutions that are highly prized, is their very strong ethical character in Catholic social teaching. The social teaching in the colleges is driven by human dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity and preferential option for the poor, and that is what is highly prized by parents, both those of the Catholic faith and those not of the faith.
The director of the Catholic Education Service, Paul Barber, said in an article that
“because academisation legislation for SFCs was developed separately from schools, the same safeguards given to schools were omitted for Catholic SFCs”.
Under current Government rules, the colleges would lose protections for the religious character of areas of the curriculum, acts of worship and governance if they converted. Primary legislation would be required, but we have been discussing this for 28 months, and no action has been taken.
It would be an enormous act of good faith for the Government to begin to act. We have seen the problems that have arisen with the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment on the cap on new free schools for Catholic schools, which has led to the Catholic Church refusing to build any more schools in this country, when perhaps 50 are needed in London and 12 in East Anglia. The Government refused to raise the cap. Faith schools are feeling quite battered at the moment, particularly in a muscular liberal secularised world, and are concerned about their status with the Government. It would be an enormous act of good faith for the Minister to act on some of the issues facing Catholic sixth-form colleges today.