Tuesday 5th March 2019

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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09:30
Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of Catholic sixth form colleges.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and at the outset of this debate I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting it.

Catholic sixth-form colleges face double discrimination under the Government’s funding of post-16 education: they are not academies, so they receive less funding than colleges that have converted to become academies, but even if they wanted to become academies they cannot do so.

The Government have been aware of these problems for a number of years, but they have done little to address either concern. On top of the huge cuts in funding to post-16 education since 2010, this double discrimination is raising concerns within the Catholic community about the long-term future of all 14 Catholic sixth-form colleges in England.

Unlike Catholic schools, the religious character of Catholic sixth-form colleges is not protected in statute, so the trustees of Catholic sixth-form colleges such as the nationally renowned St Dominic’s in my constituency, even if they were huge fans of academising, could not switch their college to make it an academy and take advantage of the many financial inducements that such status might allow.

St Dominic’s has an impressive history. It was established 140 years ago, in 1879, as a school. When the London borough of Harrow reorganised its education system, creating a specific sixth-form sector, the Dominican nuns agreed to transfer the school grounds to the Diocese of Westminster as the site of a new Catholic sixth-form college.

St Dominic’s Sixth Form College opened its doors to its first 289 students—boys and girls—in September 1979. With more than 1,300 students, it attracts young men and women from a wide geographical area across north-west London, with a number travelling more than 15 miles a day to study for their level 3 qualifications. It is a great Catholic college, but it exists within a multi-faith and multi-cultural setting that reflects our very diverse local community in Harrow.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman wanted to add at this point the enormous concentration that that college and other Catholic sixth-form colleges have shown in relation to social justice. That has been a strong element of what those colleges teach and the way that they teach it.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to take the opportunity to praise the contribution of Catholic sixth-form colleges in teaching about social justice. I do not know whether that is part of the reason that I keep getting elected. [Laughter.] Certainly, though, Catholic sixth-form colleges deserve his praise for their teaching about social justice.

The staff at St Dominic’s, to whom the hon. Gentleman was perhaps also alluding, are some of the best in the business. They are experts in their field who have devoted their careers to the education of post-16 students. They teach at a very high level, which in turn enables the students to get excellent results.

Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes (Walsall North) (Con)
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The hon. Gentleman is making a great case for that specific sixth-form college, but I understand that 85% of these Catholic sixth-form colleges are rated “outstanding” or “good” by Ofsted, so clearly there is excellent teaching going on across all of them.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
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I should not have allowed the hon. Gentleman to intervene, because he has stolen a line from later in my speech, but he makes a good point and I will return to it later.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for being unable to stay and make a speech in this debate—I have a meeting with a Minister—but I want to make this point. Does he agree that, given the fact that schools are increasingly becoming secularised, parents must have the option to have their child educated with faith as a cornerstone and to have an input into spiritual teaching, and that the Government cannot and must not ignore this point but instead must take it into consideration when allocating funding? Spiritual education is so important in this day and age.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
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I recognise the continuing and strong support for spiritual education, and it continues to be a striking feature of many of our communities that there is strong support for faith schools. In the context of the debate, there is strong support for this Catholic sixth-form college, which inspired me to seek Backbench Business Committee approval for this debate, and I am sure that there is also strong support for the other Catholic sixth-form colleges across the country. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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To re-emphasise that point, when it comes to parents seeking a school for their children to go to, it is so important that they have a choice between secular teaching and faith-based teaching. When it comes to funding and assistance, we obviously look to the Minister for some support, but it is important that people have that choice and that that choice is available in Members’ own constituencies as well.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about choice. I suppose the essential point of this debate is to say that there needs to be a level playing field in funding. A child who wants to go to a certain type of school or college should not see that there is better funding for one particular institution than there is for another down the road. I am sure that is a point he will agree with.

Jim Cunningham Portrait Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In relation to capital, particularly for colleges and their funding, sometimes Catholic schools have had to amalgamate to release property they can sell to raise capital funding. I have come across cases such as that—I do not know whether he has or not—because of the lack of capital funding.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
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My hon. Friend makes a good point about the lack of capital funding, and access to capital funding is one way in which Catholic sixth-form colleges face the double discrimination that I talked about in my opening remarks. Later in my speech, I will give some detail about the issue of capital.

Until 1993, St Dominic’s Sixth Form College was part of Harrow’s local authority-maintained system, but following the Government’s post-16 reorganisation the college became independent within the state tertiary system, overseen by the Further Education Funding Council for England. That change brought about new challenges and pressures on the college, primarily to increase student numbers and its educational provision, in order to cater for the educational needs in our community.

The 21st century has seen a series of considerable successes for the college, as its reputation for delivering high-quality sixth-form education has continued to spread. By 2007, St Dominic’s Sixth Form College was among the small group of colleges that were awarded beacon status. The 2008 Ofsted inspection of the college judged it “outstanding”, which is a distinction it has held on to ever since. Indeed, the college is now regarded as being at the very top of the league of sixth-form colleges for “excellence” in its educational provision and for its A-level results. In 2017, The Sunday Times specifically recognised it as the best sixth-form college of the year.

Not surprisingly, therefore, St Dominic’s is heavily oversubscribed—typically, there are about 3,000 applications for the 700 places available annually—but in recent years the college has had to expand, in part to meet the financial challenges of a static budgetary settlement. However, with 1,300 students, the college is now full, with no capacity to expand further.

Without an increase in funding per student or additional students, revenue income will remain flat and with increased costs such as pensions, salaries and so on, the risk of further financial challenge becomes very real. The implications of that include the possibility of a reduced curriculum, at a time when the new Ofsted framework requires a rich and diverse curriculum offer, and the possibility of substantially increased teacher-to-student ratios.

The principal of St Dominic’s, the excellent Andrew Parkin, rightly describes his college as an “educational jewel” that is looking increasingly fragile, because there are no significant financial increases on the horizon.

There are 14 Catholic sixth-form colleges in England: Aquinas in Cheshire, Cardinal Newman in Preston, Carmel in St Helens, Christ the King in Lewisham, Holy Cross in Bury, Loreto in Manchester, Notre Dame in Leeds, St Brendan’s in Bristol, St Charles in Kensington, St Francis Xavier in Wandsworth, St John Rigby in Wigan, St Mary’s in Blackburn and Xaverian in Manchester, as well as my own, St Dominic’s. Like the wider sixth-form college sector, those are high-performing institutions, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes).

Catholic sixth-form colleges teach just over 27,000 pupils, and employ almost 2,500 teachers and support staff. Together, they educate about 3% of all 16 to 18-year-olds in publicly funded provision. They account for 4% of all A-level students and for 5% of students progressing to higher education, including to the most competitive universities. Some 86% of them, as the hon. Gentleman also mentioned, are rated outstanding or good by Ofsted. They have a justified reputation as centres of excellence and places of academic rigour and achievement. They give students the chance to excel, regardless of their previous academic achievement.

Catholic sixth-form colleges have many things in common, and most serve diverse and often deprived communities.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab)
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My hon. Friend talks about the excellent standard of education in Catholic sixth-form colleges. Does he agree that that is all the more commendable in relation to Carmel College in St Helens—a college of which we are very proud—where more than a third of the cohort is from a disadvantaged background? That high standard of educational excellence means that the college contributes strongly to social mobility in the borough.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
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My hon. Friend makes a good point about Carmel College, which he knows very well. Catholic sixth-form colleges are generally regarded as a vital catalyst for social mobility in the areas they serve, and many have high levels of progression into further and higher education. Although they maintain a strong Catholic ethos, they are open to students of all faiths and none. Inevitably, many understandably cite their Catholic identity and vision as being key to their success.

I am told that Catholic dioceses across the country are developing multi-academy trusts so as not to suffer needless financial loss and because of the inducements on offer from the Government for conversion to academies. Within that construct, which is not of their choosing, they are, to their credit, trying to lock down school partnership and school-to-school support. Given the wealth of expertise within Catholic sixth-form colleges, one might have thought that the Government would have wanted them to be part of such multi-academy trust arrangements. However, even if the colleges want to join the trusts, they cannot do so at the moment.

The future of Catholic sixth-form colleges and their ongoing excellent performance largely depend on three things: revenue funding, capital funding and, in the worst case, the possibility of conversion to academies. On revenue funding, it is without question that sixth-form funding is in crisis. Two deep cuts to post-16 education funding were made after 2010. The national funding rate, which is by far the biggest component of the 16-to-18 funding formula, has been frozen at £4,000 per student per year since 2013, and funding for 18-year-olds was cut to just £3,300 per student in 2014. Expenditure on 16-to-19 education fell from £6.39 billion in 2010-11 to £5.68 billion in 2017-18—a reduction of more than 11% in cash terms and more than 20% in real terms. In 2018, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that, at 2018-19 prices, spending per full-time equivalent 16-to-19 student in further education fell from just over £6,200 in 2010-11 to £5,698 in 2017-18.

The cuts come against a backdrop of significant increases in running costs in education generally, and in colleges in particular. Since 2010, the Government have imposed a range of new requirements on institutions, which has left much less money for schools and colleges to spend on the frontline education of students, at a time when the needs of young people are becoming increasingly complex.

The future for Catholic sixth-form colleges also depends on changes to capital funding—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). A number of institutions are keen to expand but cannot access the necessary funding to educate more students. Others have increased student numbers as a response to funding pressures, but have reached maximum capacity and lack the capital needed to satisfy the demand for places. The absence of a sufficient national capital fund, as well as the growing reluctance of banks to lend for capital projects, means that many sixth-form colleges, including most Catholic ones, have nowhere to turn.

On academy conversions, I understand that some 23 sixth-form colleges have taken the opportunity to change their status and become 16-to-19 academies. That has allowed them to have their VAT costs refunded, and it provides, on average, more than £385,000 more to spend on the frontline education of students each year. Catholic sixth-form colleges, in common with all colleges that do not convert, face financial disadvantages also due to the Government’s implementation of the teachers’ pay grant. In September 2018, they extended the grant to cover 16-to-19 academies, but not sixth-form colleges or other colleges that had not converted. All Catholic sixth-form colleges were affected. They have the same workforce, pay rates and negotiating machinery as almost every 16-to-19 academy, and there is no justification for treating them differently when it comes to teachers’ pay.

Due to the religious character of Catholic sixth-form colleges, they do not have the option to convert to academies. Since they are not schools, they do not come within the legislative framework that applies to schools and which includes protections of a school’s religious character. As 16-to-19 academies, they would have to remain further education institutions but would not be governed by the statutory provisions of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which contains the current legislative protections that enable them to be conducted as Catholic colleges.

An Act of Parliament or a change of legislation is not required to allow a sixth-form college to become a 16-to-19 academy. The position is, however, different for Catholic colleges. When maintained schools become academies they become independent schools that are subject to statutory provision and regulation, including protection of their religious character, which thereby enables them to be conducted, still, as Catholic schools. When sixth-form colleges become 16-to-19 academies, they do not come within the legislative framework that applies to independent schools, because they remain as further education institutions. However, they are also not governed by the statutory provisions of the 1992 Act. A review of the legislation, jointly undertaken by the Catholic Education Service and the Department for Education, has made it clear that the statutory protections will no longer apply to Catholic colleges post conversion to 16-to-19 academies. That includes protections in the areas of curriculum, acts of worship and the responsible body—in other words, the governance.

Furthermore, I understand that financial risk assessments for further education institutions that wish to convert into academies require any Church-controlled premises to be removed from the college’s balance sheet. That stipulation is likely to affect the perceived financial health of Catholic sixth-form colleges and place them in the position of being unable to pass the risk assessment needed to become an academy.

One solution to address those anomalies suggested by the Catholic Education Service is for the Government to explore legislative and non-legislative options for Catholic sixth-form colleges to convert while retaining their religious character. Such legislation would affect only Catholic sixth-form colleges, as there are no other religiously designated sixth-form colleges in the country. I understand that the Catholic Education Service has had useful discussions with the Department for Education about reinstating in a future education Bill the legislative protections for Catholic colleges that want to become 16-to-19 academies. Such a Bill could ensure that the protections that Catholic sixth-form colleges currently have would be mirrored if they converted into 16-to-19 academies. I understand that only a short clause would be needed, although it is difficult to know when such a Bill might emerge in a future Queen’s Speech, or, given the way that Brexit is affecting the parliamentary timetable, how soon the House of Commons and the House of Lords might realistically have a chance to debate such a provision. It is also not clear whether such a clause is the Government’s preferred option for protecting the future of Catholic sixth-form colleges.

It is worth noting that non-Catholic sixth-form colleges that want to become academies have benefited from some £10 million of Government funding through the area review restructuring facility. I understand that that facility, from which Catholic sixth-form colleges have been clearly unable to benefit, closes this month.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn
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Does my hon. Friend agree that the sense of urgency within the Catholic sixth-form college sector about this matter cannot be stressed enough to the Minister? Representatives of Carmel College have told me that they have had to reduce the number of subjects they teach and have larger class sizes, but they are also having to lay off staff. That is not sustainable or viable, nor is it something that any of us wants, so I urge the Minister to address that anomaly quickly.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention on behalf of Carmel College; he makes his point extremely well. Capital funding, VAT refunds and the teachers’ pay grant are all areas of finance for post-16 academies that Catholic sixth-form colleges, like other non-academy post-16 colleges, are not benefiting from. That is short-changing Catholic students, and also many other students who benefit from attending those other institutions.

As the number of 16 to 18-year-olds is set to increase, it is important that funding is made available to deal with that demographic upturn. Sixth-form colleges, as large specialist 16-to-18 institutions with proven track records, are well placed to help to cater for the coming upturn in student numbers, but they urgently need access to sufficient capital funding to build the necessary capacity. The Sixth Form Colleges Association believes that establishing a capital expansion fund for dedicated 16-to-18 educational institutions such as sixth-form colleges is the way to break that capital impasse. Other colleges also deserve to be able to access proper capital funding, such as Harrow College and Stanmore College, which serve my constituency. That would help to increase the number of young people being educated in high-performing institutions, at a lower cost to the public purse and with a higher likelihood of success than continuing to establish new, usually much smaller providers.

The critical issue is that since 2010 the further education sector has been held back through lack of investment. Over the past 10 years, colleges have had to deal with an average funding cut of 30%, while at the same time costs have increased dramatically. As I alluded to, other colleges in Harrow such as Harrow College and Stanmore College have been hit financially, reflecting problems across the English post-16 sector. Further education is the only part of the education budget to have been cut year on year since 2010. That drop in funding has had a real impact on staff pay: on average, college teachers are now paid at less than 80% of the rate of school staff. The latest Association of Colleges workforce survey suggests that average lecturer pay in colleges is just over £30,000—significantly lower than average schoolteacher pay and university academic pay, which are £35,000 and just over £43,000 respectively. The value of staff pay has fallen by more than 25% since 2009, and staff turnover rates in colleges averaged 17% in 2017, which is the most recent year for which stats are available. The hardest-to-fill posts are teaching jobs in engineering, construction and mathematics.

The recent ring-fenced teachers’ pay grant for schools was not extended to further education colleges, which made it even more difficult for Catholic sixth-form colleges and other post-16 institutions to recruit the teachers they need. Schoolteachers received a pay rise of up to 3.5%, whereas college staff did not, which is simply unfair. Extending the teachers’ pay grant to Catholic sixth-form colleges and all other non-academy 16-to-19 institutions would relieve pressure on the frontline and begin to level the playing field between institutions that are delivering effectively the same type of education. The cost would be comparatively small, but the impact would be significant—not just on the financial position of individual colleges, but in reassuring the sector that its work, curriculum and workforce were properly understood and appreciated by the Government.

In short, students do not deserve to be discriminated against. If students attend a college that is not an academy, the Government are discriminating against them, as they allow academy colleges to be better funded. Catholic sixth-form colleges and their students are doubly disadvantaged, as those colleges cannot convert to become academies even if they want to. It is high time that Catholic sixth-form colleges, like other non-academy colleges, got the same funding as academies; that this double discrimination was brought to an end; and, crucially, that funding for all post-16 education was significantly improved. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

09:57
Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, for what I believe is the first time. I congratulate my neighbour, the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), on securing this debate at an important time for not only Catholic education, but education as a whole. It was a great pleasure to chair the Backbench Business Committee and give him the opportunity to hold this debate.

I rise for a number of reasons, the first of which is fairness. I have always strongly believed in a parent’s right to choose the type of education they want for their children, be that a church school, any other form of religious school, or a secular school—I do not take a particular view. Equally, parents should have the right to choose whether their child receives single-sex or mixed education. One of the great beauties of the London borough of Harrow, which my neighbour and I share, is that we have education for Hindus, Jews, Catholics and Protestants, and we will soon have a Muslim state school as a result of parental demand.

St Dominic’s Sixth Form College, which is in my neighbour’s constituency, has as its main feeders two Catholic schools in my constituency: Salvatorian College and Sacred Heart Language College. They are 11-to-16 schools, both Catholic in nature, and the natural progression for their pupils is to go on to St Dominic’s college. However, St Dominic’s does not just take young people from Salvatorian College and Sacred Heart; as my neighbour alluded to, it takes young people from across north-west London. It has quite a long reach into a number of London boroughs.

The nature of St Dominic’s, and of other Catholic colleges, is that they provide excellent education. That is why they are in demand, after all. It is worth remembering that in many ways we have such advanced education across this country because of the investment made by the Church of England and the Catholic Church going back way before we had state education. It is important to understand that the colleges are excellent. They provide a very good standard of education, are well led and have excellent teachers. That is the feature of a good education system, so it is grossly unfair that they are disadvantaged.

I rise to seek fairness in the system for Catholic sixth-form colleges. It is fair to say that when we have changed the funding formula, sixth forms generally have suffered. Clearly, the priority has been on young people between the ages of 11 and 16, who have a higher rate of funding than sixth forms. A head or member of a governing body of a school, college or whatever that teaches people from the ages of 11 to 18 can adjust the funding to ensure a spread throughout the institution, but a sixth-form college is totally dependent on the funding that comes in for those young people between the ages of 16 and 18. The slight problem is that the average funding is £4,545 for a sixth-form student, which is 15% lower than that for 11 to 16-year-olds. Straightaway, sixth-form colleges are at a disadvantage from a revenue perspective.

One of the challenges in Harrow is that Sacred Heart Language College has always been full. It is an excellent school, so there has been a steady flow of young women going on to St Dominic’s or beyond. It is fair to say that Salvatorian College has had real challenges. However, it is being completely rebuilt and we are looking forward to the new premises opening completely. The school is now full with young boys coming through, so the impact on St Dominic’s will be even greater. The college is full, and as the hon. Member for Harrow West alluded to, there is little if any space to expand. Even if we could get hold of the money required, expansion is a real challenge, given where it is located and that it has such a tight site.

The impact on the funding level is important. Colleges—sixth-form colleges and Catholic sixth-form colleges in particular—are dropping courses in modern languages as a result of funding pressures. When we are trying to encourage the development of modern languages, it is not helpful if colleges are dropping them due to funding. Equally, we are trying to get young people better educated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. When we are encouraging them to do STEM subjects, it is a disaster for colleges to drop those courses.

There are other issues. St Dominic’s is having to put young people in much larger class sizes to try to use the facilities available. I visited the college only last week. It has a plan to expand into lecture halls, as opposed to classrooms, to try to use facilities to their maximum capability. There is good sense to that. Teachers can lecture, but then there still needs to be the capacity for one-to-one teaching subsequently. As has been mentioned by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Harrow West, and in various interventions, we have a crisis.

John Howell Portrait John Howell
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What effect is the situation that my hon. Friend describes having on university applications and the success that Catholic sixth-form colleges have had in getting people into good universities to do good courses?

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. There is that concern. All the Catholic sixth-form colleges are producing an excellent education, with a good flow of young people going on to university and being given the opportunity to excel. Virtually every young person who goes through St Dominic’s goes on to good universities with good courses, particularly in maths and science. We should be encouraging that and ensuring that it happens.

At the same time, we have the challenge of what we could call the learning tax. Catholic sixth-form colleges are not able to academise and therefore cannot claim the VAT back. That gives any college a real challenge. Catholic sixth-form colleges should be able to academise. We should also remove any restrictions on the faith of the leadership of the college. Such colleges should be able to ensure that Catholics are the senior management and senior staff. We should have a position where the intake is in line with legislation, namely that a proportion of the students coming into the college can be selected. They do not have to be exclusively Catholic, but there should be a Catholic flavour to the colleges.

Equally, there is a challenge in what we do to expand such colleges, which are extremely popular and very successful. It is fair to say that the teachers in those colleges are experienced, highly professional and doing a good job, yet they do not get the pay rises they would get if they were working in a college down the road. That is clearly unfair. We have to remove the restriction whereby these colleges are not getting the pay grant that other colleges get. That is unfair discrimination.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
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Unusually, the hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech, but will he join me in urging the Minister to commit today to the next teachers’ pay award for post-16 institutions being fully funded, regardless of status? That would certainly give substantial reassurance to the principal of St Dominic’s Sixth Form College, as well as other Catholic sixth-form colleges.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
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I thank my neighbour for congratulating me on my speech. I look forward to him congratulating me on many occasions on my speeches in this place and in the main Chamber. He makes an important point. We are going into the comprehensive spending review, where there is an opportunity for the Government to make some changes. I am not sure whether we need a change in the law to ensure that Catholic sixth-form colleges receive the pay award that other colleges receive. If that change is needed, we should get on and do it. Given that the Government seem to find time to adjust the law when they wish, it may be that that would be relatively easy to do. I do not think there would be any disagreement across the House on the need for the measure.

If we could reach a point where Catholic sixth-form colleges could academise, get the benefits of academy status and reclaim VAT costs, that would be an enormous boost to their revenue funding. Equally, if we could remove any measures that prevent senior staff from holding a particular faith, that would remove the challenge that many such colleges face.

The hon. Member for Harrow West raised the issue of capital funding. Why would a bank lend to a college if its revenue funding was already challenged and it might not be able to repay the loan? That is one of the key challenges in raising capital. There needs to be a fund available to Catholic sixth-form colleges from which they can draw in order to provide capital provision within the system. All Catholic sixth-form colleges suffer the same challenge of how to expand and get more revenue funding. If they do not have the capital, they are clearly not able to expand. Their revenue base is a particular challenge.

In terms of the money for 2019-20, if the teachers’ pay award was extended to Catholic sixth-form colleges, it would cost only £2.5 million—a relatively small amount compared with the overall budget—but it would make a huge difference to the colleges that need to pay it. As my neighbour, the hon. Member for Harrow West, has mentioned, if we could get to a position whereby Catholic sixth-form colleges were allowed to academise or possibly join multi-academy trusts, it would assist them to some degree. At a time when the majority of young people in this country are taught in academies, it seems unfair that Catholic sixth-form colleges are discriminated against and do not have the capacity to opt in. If they were an 11-to-18 school, they could academise, but because they have chosen to be a sixth-form Catholic college, they cannot. That does not make sense in this day and age.

We have T-levels coming on stream. It seems ridiculous that sixth-form colleges are dropping STEM courses when we are trying to develop T-levels. They will be properly on stream by 2023, but we need action now.

Will the Minister look at the case that has been put forward? If we need a change in the law, so be it. We could change the law relatively easily with all-party support, and I believe it would pass the Commons and Lords very quickly. We could equalise the situation for the benefit of the young people we all serve.

10:12
Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) delivered an excellent and comprehensive speech, so I do not think that I need to add much. As he mentioned, I have a Catholic sixth-form college, St Brendan’s, in my constituency, although it serves a wide catchment area that stretches as far as Weston-super-Mare. My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) have all visited the college. They are great supporters of it and would have been here today to speak in its defence if they had been able to.

I do not hold a particular torch for faith-based education. I have some reservations about it, although I think that a greater problem is where demographics in a particular area lead to a school being de facto one culture. I say this as someone who grew up in Luton and went to Luton Sixth Form College, which was very diverse, but some of the schools there, just because of where people live, tend not to be as diverse as they could be. We are fortunate in Bristol that all the schools, including St Brendan’s, have a healthy mix of pupils from different backgrounds. Although St Brendan’s is a Catholic sixth-form college and priority is given to students from Catholic schools, it is very diverse.

St Brendan’s clearly has an ethical focus to its teaching, but the Catholicism is not too evident. Catholic parents get the faith-based education that they want for their children, but children from all faiths feel comfortable there and the college is doing well. It has significant plans to expand, which presents some challenges, particularly in relation to traffic, because it is at the top of the most congested road in my constituency, but we can address that. There is also the challenge that school sixth forms are smaller and struggle to provide a broader curriculum. If St Brendan’s expands, will the school sixth forms be no longer viable? However, I still support its expansion because, as I have said, it provides an excellent service.

When I have been to St Brendan’s I have always been impressed by how open-minded the college is and how receptive it is to discussing issues across all faiths and no faiths. I attended a session there once after some young pupils from elsewhere in the Bristol school system had led a nationwide campaign against female genital mutilation. The sixth form brought the young women to talk to a group of pupils about issues within the community and about FGM. It was a real eye-opener for the pupils and was a really good thing to do. I have also met the feminist society there.

I had a meeting recently with the principal and a couple of student reps, one of whom said, “I identify as gender-neutral”, and not an eyelid was batted. Some people have real fears about what a faith-based organisation looks like, particularly a Catholic college, but St Brendan’s is as far from bigoted as we would want an educational establishment to be. There is also a real focus on international development, which links with the work of lots of churches in my constituency that do really good work with overseas communities, as does St Brendan’s as well.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West said, St Brendan’s and the other Catholic sixth-form colleges face double discrimination. Sixth-form academies do not have to pay VAT, but sixth-form colleges do. We have debated that before in Westminster Hall on numerous occasions in the broader context of how sixth-form colleges are treated, and we are all keen for the Minister to move forward on that. Other sixth-form colleges have the get-out clause that they can convert to academies and receive funding as a result. Only the Catholic sixth-form colleges cannot, which is particularly unfair when schools that convert to academies can retain their current status. It seems completely anomalous, as has been said, that Catholic sixth-form colleges are treated differently from other sixth-form colleges, and differently from other Catholic schools.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) mentioned another issue. I was not expecting to speak in today’s debate, so I do not have the figures to hand, but there is an issue with pupils in sixth-form colleges receiving less funding than pupils in schools. There is also still an issue with third-year funding, whereby they get even less if the pupil stays on at the sixth form for three years. Perhaps the school system failed the young people; perhaps they simply were not ready to grapple with education; or perhaps there were issues with their home circumstances. We have a lot of children in Bristol who have come from fairly chaotic family backgrounds. They might come from refugee families, for example. For one reason or another, they might not have left school with the GCSEs that we would want them to, so they might need to do three years at St Brendan’s. As I understand it, if they stay on for three years, the college gets less funding once they have passed 18. That might have been rectified because we have raised it with the Minister before, but perhaps he will address that point. As has been said, rectifying that would require only a short clause in the next education Bill. The discussions have been going on for a very long time.

I will finish by referring to a note that Michael Jaffrain, the principal of St Brendan’s, sent me recently, in which he asked me to speak in the debate. He said that the fact that Catholic sixth-form colleges are not allowed to become academies

“seriously limits choices in terms of future strategy.”

I have already said that the college has huge ambitions to expand, which I support. The principal also said:

“The ability not to be able to convert into the schools sector is now starting to have a real bite. Unlike the sixth form colleges who have converted, St Brendan’s will not receive any additional funding to cover the 2% increase in teacher pay and there is still no commitment that we will be fully funded for the 7% increase in teacher pension contributions. This, alongside the injustice that, unlike schools sixth forms, we still also have to pay VAT on all goods and services we purchase, is now putting a considerable strain on our finances and the ability to continue to deliver an outstanding education to our community.”

St Brendan’s serves not only my constituency, but constituencies in a significant range around the Bristol area. It is so important that we do all that we can to support it.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is a so-called EVEL debate—English votes for English laws—so we do not have a representative of the Scottish National party. I therefore call Mike Kane to speak for the Labour party.

09:55
Mike Kane Portrait Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

10:32
Nick Gibb Portrait The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is not for the first time in my case, but I am not going to say that it is too often—it is never enough.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing this debate. Catholic sixth-form colleges make an important contribution to education in this country and the Government recognise the distinctive role that they play. To address the important issue raised by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), we value faith schools generally. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that it is the right of parents to be able to bring up their children in their faith and that the state should provide faith schools to enable them to do that. The Government have provided capital through the voluntary-aided route to enable the Catholic Education Society to establish more Catholic faith schools in this country.

I am aware that the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills has met the hon. Member for Harrow West to discuss the issues facing this group of colleges. The Minister has also recently seen at first hand the quality of the educational and wider opportunities provided to young people at St. Dominic’s Sixth Form College in Harrow. I welcome the opportunity to explore the issues further today.

I want to begin by paying tribute to all the hard-working staff, principals, heads and governors in those colleges. Sixth-form colleges at their best not only provide excellent academic education, but help provide direction to young people and help them to grow in maturity through those crucial years. They allow young people to develop outside a school environment, giving them the aspiration to achieve in whatever field, job or career they want to pursue. Catholic sixth-form colleges provide that within an atmosphere of moral guidance and pastoral support.

Catholic sixth-form colleges represent a significant proportion of sixth-form colleges in England—14 out of 60, not including those that have become academies—and 17% of sixth-form college students attend a Catholic college. Such colleges are focused on meeting the needs of local communities and are key to our drive to improve social mobility. A high proportion of students in sixth-form colleges and 16-to-19 academies are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Colleges provide excellent support to help those students achieve high results and progress to sustained education, apprenticeships or employment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) was right to point to the priority that Catholic sixth-form colleges give to social justice. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) pointed out that 12 of the 14 Catholic sixth-form colleges are rated “good” or “outstanding”. Academic excellence has always been, and remains, at the core. More than a third of sixth-form colleges are rated by Ofsted as “outstanding”. Looking at the 14 Catholic sixth-from colleges in England, the picture is even better, with seven out of the 14 rated “outstanding”, and five other colleges rated “good”. I recognise that that has been achieved in increasingly challenging financial circumstances.

Of course, an Ofsted rating is only a snapshot and I know that colleges are constantly reviewing their practices and procedures to see whether further improvements can be made. Two Catholic sixth-form colleges, for example, have benefited from support from the Government’s strategic college improvement fund. St Dominic’s Sixth Form College is partnering with St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College in south London. The fund supports colleges to improve the quality of provision and helps to mobilise and strengthen improvement capacity within the further education sector.

I congratulate sixth-form colleges on the successful implementation of the reforms to A-levels over the last few years, with the first wave of exams in 13 new subjects in 2017 and a further 12 last year. The reforms will continue to be rolled out over the next two years, with the first exams in a further 20 new A-levels in summer this year and another 13 next year. Exam reform is never easy. In the last 30 years, we have had four significant reforms to A-levels—the introduction of the advanced supplementaries, Curriculum 2000, which introduced the AS/A2 structure, the introduction of the A* grade a decade ago and now demodularisation.

In the run-up to the spending review that is expected later this year, we have been looking closely at the sustainability and funding of the FE sector, including sixth-form colleges. The Government understand that the sector faces significant challenges, and the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills has made it a personal priority to address the constraints and their impact over the last year. Campaigns such as “Love our Colleges” and “Raise the Rate” have helped raise the profile of FE and sixth-form colleges and their important work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East raised the issue of 16-to-19 funding for colleges compared with sixth forms in schools. We have ended that unfair discrimination between colleges and schools. All institutions now receive funding according to the same base rate. The funding system aims to ensure a common entitlement. The same formula is applied to all students and different institutions now receive the same funding rate.

However, we recognise that funding per student in the 16-to-19 phase has not kept up with costs. We protected the base rate for funding for 16 to 19-year-olds at £4,000 until the end of this spending review period, but that is, of course, against the backdrop of previous reductions and the impact of inflation—reductions that happened because we had to tackle the historic and unsustainable deficit that we inherited in 2010, representing 10% of GDP. As my hon. Friend the Member of Harrow East pointed out, we prioritised protecting core school funding for five to 16-year-olds, because that is where the biggest influence on life outcomes happens.

The position has been made more difficult by reducing numbers of students. The number of 16 to 18-year-olds in the population has been falling for 10 years and it is now 10% lower than in 2008-09.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) raised the issue of the lower base funding rate for the third year of 16-to-19 education. She is right to do so, but that lower level does not apply to students with special educational needs.

As the hon. Members for Harrow West and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) pointed out, capital funding is a key concern for sixth-form colleges. Unlike general further education colleges, sixth-form colleges can bid for the condition improvement fund along with schools. Unlike academies, SFCs can borrow, and many have productive relationships with banks, although some of them have found it harder to borrow in recent years—a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East.

We recognise that an important challenge facing sixth-form colleges in many areas over the coming years is to prepare for the anticipated increase in student numbers. That increase is, of course, an opportunity to recruit additional students and receive the associated increased funding, but in some cases it needs extra up-front investment—for example, to build new classrooms—so we will look carefully in the spending review at how we can help colleges to prepare for the increase in student numbers that many of them now anticipate.

It is true that we have made a teacher pay grant available to schools and academies to ensure that they can afford to implement the school teacher pay award this year, and that it did not extend to FE or sixth-form colleges. Compared with maintained schools and academies, colleges have a different legal status and relationship with Government, and they are not covered by the recommendations of the School Teachers Review Body. We concluded that we could therefore not extend the teacher pay grant to colleges. We are considering colleges’ needs separately ahead of the coming spending review, to help make the case for the best FE funding. The Government are concerned about ensuring that FE colleges can attract and retain the staff they need to deliver high quality education. Again, we welcome the input of Catholic sixth-form colleges.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not sure I accept the argument the Minister is making for the last pay award, but let us put that to one side for now. Can he tell us whether he has sorted the issues, so that the next teachers’ pay award will be fully funded not only for colleges that are academies, but for those that are not, such as the Catholic sixth-form colleges that have been mentioned and all post-16 institutions?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That will be very much an issue for the next spending review, but perhaps a neater solution would be to address the issue of the conversion of Catholic sixth-form colleges to academy status. I am aware that the issue of academy conversion is very significant for this group of colleges. Indeed, each Catholic sixth-form college was asked to consider joining an academy in the reports of the further education area reviews covering their areas, but I understand that only three of the 14 made an immediate decision not to pursue that option.

I should explain—as other hon. Members have explained—that the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 includes specific freedoms, which permit Catholic sixth-form colleges to maintain and develop their religious character. Fully equivalent protections are not included in the legal framework for 16-to-19 academies, which are a distinctive type of institution compared with other academies established through the Education Act 2011. The provisions that allow sixth-form colleges to consider faith when appointing governors and staff, and that allow them to teach religious education and provide collective worship in line with tenets of the Catholic faith, do not currently exist for 16-to-19 academies.

When the legislative framework for 16-to-19 academies was first established, we did not envisage establishing them as faith-based 16-to-19 institutions. At the time, our view was that EU directive 2000/78/EC prevented the creation of new post-16 vocational institutions with a religious character. We had adopted a blanket approach, so that no post-16 provision could be established with a religious character. We are now exploring how to put in place the right conditions to enable Catholic sixth-form colleges to convert to academy status with their existing freedoms.

I know that my ministerial colleagues have met representatives of Catholic sixth-form colleges and the Catholic Education Service to discuss this issue. As the hon. Member for Harrow West pointed out, it would require primary legislation to make the necessary changes, but the Government’s legislative programme does not yet provide the scope for such legislation. We will of course keep this under review in future parliamentary Sessions, and we will continue to work with this group of colleges and with the hon. Gentleman to try to find a solution to this problem.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Clearly there is the issue of any potential legal impediment. Will the Minister confirm that, provided the United Kingdom leaves the European Union on 29 March, that legal impediment will fall way and it would be up to the Government to bring forward a change in the law—a private Member’s Bill could achieve the same—that would enable Catholic sixth-form colleges to academise if they chose to do so?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I think later legal advice shows that the issue is more nuanced than that, and it might be possible to legislate even while we remain subject to the EU directive. I very much hope that we can take that forward when an opportunity arises.

Last year, sixth-form colleges raised concerns about the creation of new 16-to-19 free schools and the approvals process for academies to create new sixth-form provision. We have listened to those concerns and strengthened the criteria we use to assess new sixth-form proposals. For all schools that apply to open a sixth form, we have set a clear requirement that all local sixth-form and FE colleges must be consulted prior to a business case being submitted. Furthermore, during the last free school application wave, we were explicit that all applications for new 16-to-19 provision must provide evidence of need for additional places in the area, and that any request is likely to be approved by exception only. In the guidance for wave 14, which we published recently, this requirement was strengthened further.

I conclude as I began: by paying tribute to the excellent academic achievements of Catholic sixth-form colleges and their support for improving social mobility among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I recognise that such colleges have particularly felt the tightening financial circumstances, despite our protection of the base rate of funding. The issue of academisation is significant for the sector.

I echo the sentiments of the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills when she spoke at the winter conference of the Sixth Form Colleges Association in January. As we prepare for the spending review, explaining the issues through opportunities such as this debate will help provide strong arguments for the sector. More importantly, the continued delivery of excellent education and strong pastoral support and guidance will be the best advert for further investment in Catholic sixth-form colleges and all colleges in this important and high-performing sector.

10:47
Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This has been an extremely good debate. I reinforce my gratitude to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me to secure it, and to Back-Bench colleagues and the shadow Minister for their contributions. I also thank the Minister for his thorough response. However, I have to say that from listening to him speak—notwithstanding the thorough contribution he made—it is clear that the double discrimination that Catholic sixth-form colleges face is unlikely to end any time soon.

I urge the Minister and Secretary of State for Education to give this issue further priority in the months to come. If the issue of the next teachers’ pay award being fully funded—not just funded in full for those colleges that have converted to become academies—could be resolved quickly, it would certainly provide some reassurance to Catholic sixth-form colleges and other post-16 institutions that are not academies. This issue needs to be sorted out. Although it is good that the Minister has been able to focus on it today, clearly more urgency is needed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the future of Catholic sixth form colleges.

10:50
Sitting suspended.