My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The decimation of adult courses has been brought about partly through the ending of student support for over-19s. The students and colleges are dealing with that cliff edge, which comes when students reach 19. Aviation and ICT course students told me that more than half the students left at the end of level 2, because they no longer got funding. They therefore missed out on level 3, which is the best gateway to jobs.
West Thames College, like many others, has lost 30% of its funding in the last 10 years, while costs, as other hon. Members have said, have been rising. Students told me that they respected their tutors greatly and could not understand how they earned £7,000 less than equivalently experienced schoolteachers. The West Thames principal, Tracy Aust, made it clear to me that this situation, with all these problems, is not sustainable and ultimately impacts not only on students but on staff, businesses, our communities and our wider economy.
How can Government Members wring their hands about UK productivity and then oversee the decimation of the education and skills training that is fundamental to the productivity that this country so badly needs? How can they wax lyrical about social mobility and then withdraw or underfund the options that enable people to aspire and achieve?
I did not intend to speak because I was a long time in the main Chamber for the Prime Minister’s Brexit statement, so thank you, Mr Bone, for giving me the opportunity. It is a perfect segue, because the chief executive of Nottingham College, John van de Laarschot, used to be the chief executive of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, next to my area. He is a good man, and I count him as a friend.
The Minister will know well from the correspondence that we have had over the last year that Newcastle-under-Lyme has an excellent college—I hope that she will visit us sometime soon. Its principal, Karen Dobson, was awarded an OBE in the new year’s honours list, in recognition of her efforts and those of her team. I played my part in getting a £5 million contribution from the old Advantage West Midlands to make the construction happen, because there was no better argument for investment in regeneration than investment in people’s futures and in their further education.
I want to make one wider point, with the Chair of the Education Committee here, to the Minister. In Newcastle, since the reorganisation in the 1980s, there is only one school, St John Fisher, a Catholic school, that has a sixth form; everybody else goes to the college, more or less. Therefore, excellent though the college is, this is not simply a matter of choice. My plea to the Minister is that, be it on per-pupil funding or on teachers’ pay, the playing field between school sixth forms and FE colleges simply must be levelled. Not only is the current situation unfair to pupils and teachers; it discriminates against areas like mine in north Staffordshire, Newcastle and Stoke-on-Trent, which have a different school and college structure. I hope that in the coming days, weeks and months, as the Minister goes in to bat in the Treasury, her Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), will pursue that argument with her vigorously.