Yesterday, Wednesday 4 November 2020, I lead a Westminster Hall debate on further education funding, this follows a debate I took part in the week before that (find out more about that here). In the debate, I highlighted the devastating impact that a decade of cuts has had on the further education sector and the challenges it faces both now and in the years to come with the urgent need to reskill significant amounts of people following the coronavirus pandemic.
You can read my speech below:
I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding for further education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hosie.
The question before the House today is one that has been considered many times over recent years, which is testament to its importance. I am grateful to hon. Members for participating in this vital debate. Indeed, the debate might never have been so necessary because, as for all aspects of society, coronavirus has shone a light on the devastating impact of austerity and the rampant inequality in our society. That is particularly apparent in the further education sector.
Education is potentially the most powerful tool for lifting people out of poverty, with further education presenting unique opportunities to do just that. Not only does FE prepare many school leavers for higher study and provide them with the skills for meaningful employment, but it allows many adults to learn, whether that means new skills or building on existing ones. The FE sector and the many colleges and sixth forms within it have proven an accessible source of further and higher education, providing opportunities for learning to students who are disproportionately from more deprived areas and disproportionately from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. It is of note that the 16 to 19-year-old students in colleges are twice as likely to claim free school meals as those in schools or sixth forms.
Given the deep cuts that the sector has experienced in recent years, it has attracted many nicknames. I agreed with the Secretary of State for Education when, in what can only be described as a total lack of self-awareness, he came up with one more, saying that the FE sector stood for “forgotten education”. I am sure that many other Members have reminded him that he has voted for cut after cut to the FE sector since 2010 but, in case they have not, I will take this opportunity to detail briefly the impact that forgetting the sector has had.
The Government have started talking up further education and skills, but colleges and sixth forms continue to have to deal with the lingering reality of austerity, with grave concerns about the prospects of many colleges in the future. As schools and colleges began to return, the Association of Colleges estimated that colleges face a £2 billion shortfall this academic year, despite the Government investing an extra £300 million for the year. An assessment by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that to bring spending in the FE sector to 2010-11 levels would cost a total of £1.1 billion. The citing of such vast sums from the AOC and IFS shows as plainly as possible the enormity of the challenges that face us.
I do not doubt that the Government want to see the potential of the further education sector utilised fully. Time and time again, however, it feels like the issues that have arisen because of prolonged underfunding are papered over, instead of addressed fully. A report from the National Audit Office found that although there were strong measures to prevent colleges falling into financial difficulties, they were extremely costly. Many colleges remain in financial difficulty.
I agree with the assessment of the Select Committee on Education which, in its report on a 10-year plan for school and college funding, said that the post-16 education sector had not moved on following the financial crash in the same way that other sectors had, that political decisions had created the lag in post-16 education and that that had a detrimental impact on outcomes while undermining efforts to tackle social justice. Without delving into the lack of lack of funding for managing estates, and the additional costs incurred by colleges and sixth forms, the further education sector clearly needs serious investment, not only to survive in the long term but to deliver the widespread upskilling that our country needs to see as we come, I hope, to the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
I cautiously welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of a lifetime skills guarantee. With such significant job losses across the country, people need the opportunity to learn new skills or improve existing ones. I also welcome the devolution of funding for adult education, such as the £36 million that Sheffield city region is set to take responsibility for. Local leaders understand the needs in their area best and are most connected to those who will benefit from these funds. However, I do not believe that these funding streams are a fix-all that addresses the serious need for a financial overhaul of the further education sector, which must come from a national approach.
The skills package fails to address the key skills challenge and the 68% drop in qualifications for health and social care workers since 2010. Funding for Sheffield city region is not available to be used until August 2021. While its promises seem bold, I fear that it is too little, too late. For all the talk of ambition, the plans coming forward are too slow and not bold enough in what they hope to achieve.
The Association of Colleges has once again highlighted the enormity of the task at hand. It has called for an extra £3.6 billion to upskill those at greater risk of the economic impact after the coronavirus pandemic moves on—whenever that will be—as well as ensuring quality places for every 16 to 18-year-old and expanded traineeships and apprenticeships. That is echoed by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, which goes further, calling for a one-off skills package of £8.6 billion and urging Government to allocate £4.5 billion of that to address the serious underfunding of adult education.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the digital divide in the country. When schools and colleges are shut, students have to adapt to online learning overnight, which requires access to good quality IT equipment and reliable broadband. However, many students from low-income backgrounds, who did not have access to a laptop or PC at home, and had until then relied on using library computers, were left unable to complete remote learning or had to work from a unsuitable device, such as the small screen of a phone.
During the lockdown, I had a Zoom call with the Red Cross, which works very successfully with hard-to-reach learners. I was told that many of those learners’ parents only had a pay-as-you-go phone. If they were to take part in the Zoom call and get the support they needed, their data could be gone in minutes, because a mobile phone is not a way to try to learn. That makes it even harder for young people to access the learning that their better-off peers can.
The Government have made clear that they expect colleges and sixth forms to use existing funds, namely, the 16-to-19 bursary and the adult education budget, to purchase IT equipment. There is concern among the industry that further education providers may struggle to meet this cost, and that the provision of pre-16 schemes should be extended to the further education sector.
Students without access to effective equipment are at real risk of being left behind if the Government do not step in to ensure that every further education student has the tools that they need to complete their education in these challenging times. Funding for colleges to supply students with this equipment has fallen short of what is necessary. Although colleges have welcomed back students, many are moving once more to online learning.
The Government announced, at the 11th hour, changes to the criteria for schools to receive laptops, a decision that the NASUWT says has meant schools receiving up to 80% less than promised. With many pupils and students having to self-isolate, remote learning will be a feature of our educational system for a long time to come. The issue is, therefore, still pertinent, and it is not too late for the Government to step in and fix it while the academic year is still quite new.
We are at a crossroads. The country has faced and continues to face one of the greatest challenges in living memory. After the second world war, our leaders knew that we could not go back to business as usual and, in the wake of such destruction, rebuilt our country. The economic challenge we will face in the months and years to come cannot be overcome by bringing public funding back to 2010 levels. We must go further to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and that takes vision; I know that the Minister has that vision, but I fear the Treasury does not share it.
I am looking forward to hearing the contributions in this debate, and hope that the Minister will listen to the wide range of voices in support of the FE sector ahead of the publication of the White Paper. I hope that when it is published, it will finally provide the funding the sector has been calling for, year in and year out, and that this funding will allow it to play its part in rebuilding our economy. I hope that our people, young and old, will be supported by the Government to face a very different post-coronavirus world in which they will thrive, and I urge the Minister to ensure they are not abandoned to a future without hope.