Speech to the National Assembly for Wales
Our motion today condemns the Government for embarking on a policy direction that will reduce the number of school sixth forms and see them replaced with sixth-form colleges.
We have brought this motion forward for two reasons.
First, we believe that, by and large, school sixth forms offer a better environment for 16 to 18-year-olds to continue their education than tertiary colleges, although I would be the first to accept that there are plenty of poor examples of the former and excellent examples of the latter—I certainly do not want to generalise or rule out a serious debate on how post-16 education is offered.
The second reason for our dismay is that this policy, which could signal one of the biggest changes in education policy since the abolition of grammar schools, is being conducted out of sight and out of mind of the public, behind the closed doors of the offices of the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning and senior Education and Learning Wales officials.
It is not generally realised that, if the Minister has her way, some school sixth forms will close as a result of decisions that she is taking now.
Before my colleagues make the case for school sixth forms, I wish to set out some of the facts. On 10 December, ELWa made a presentation to the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee in which it made it clear that it intended to move towards a funding system that would remove money from school sixth forms and give it to tertiary colleges.
That was explicitly stated and backed up with a chart showing various different timescales for achieving what it described as parity.
The intention was perfectly clear: over a period of several years, money for school sixth forms will be reduced.
If anyone has any doubts regarding this, I suggest that they view the transcript of the presentation made that day, which is on the Assembly's website.
I and several other Members, including one Labour Member, I believe, who is currently not in the Chamber, expressed concerns to ELWa that if funding to school sixth forms is cut, many, or at least some, will close. Despite a great deal of obfuscation, it would not directly deny that.
The second fact to consider is that the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning is about to give sweeping powers to ELWa to reorganise—that is her word—sixth-form education.
The Government intends to give ELWa the powers to recommend the closure of school sixth forms without the consent of local education authorities.
LEAs are at least accountable to the local authority, which is made up of councillors who can be thrown out if they take an unpopular decision.
If the power to close sixth forms is taken away from LEAs and given to ELWa, then the decision is taken one step further away from the people whom we are meant to serve.
I am no conspiracy theorist, but it strikes me as more than a coincidence that ELWa will gain the power to shut down a school sixth form just as it embarks on a plan to cut its funds. Again, there has not been great debate about this.
As we all know, the Minister is fond of standing at this lectern to make statements on all sorts of matters, but she has been notably silent about the detail of sixth-form funding and the extra powers over our children's education that she intends to give to a quango that has become a byword for incompetence.
I will tackle head-on the Government's twofold response to the central accusation that school sixth forms will close.
First, it points to the education and training action plan proposals and to other documents, and claims that everything was decided without fuss four years ago and agreed to by one and all.
The proposals, which I have read from start to finish, talk vaguely about coherent funding arrangements and all sorts of other issues, but say nothing—not a single word—about a cut in funding to school sixth forms. I cannot find any mention of this before December.
Secondly, the Government is trying to cover up what it is doing by saying that there is not a policy to close school sixth forms.
Technically, it is right—there is no Government policy to close school sixth forms, but there is a policy to cut their funding, which will lead to some being closed. It is not the policy itself, but a consequence of the policy, which will lead to the closures.
I urge Members to listen carefully to what is said by the Minister today because I suspect that she will do what she has done before, and will try to deny an accusation that has not been made while ignoring the one which has.
There is no doubt that if funding to schools sixth forms is cut, some will close. Meanwhile, others will struggle on with fewer courses on offer.
People living in rural areas will be at a particular disadvantage and will suffer the downside of this policy. They will have to attend a school sixth form, which will not be able to offer the same range of courses that tertiary colleges will.
Unable to access tertiary colleges, they will not benefit from the upside of this policy, which is that more money may well go to those colleges.
I am aware of the time; therefore, I will allow other Members to outline the advantages that school sixth forms can offer.
I wish to put two simple questions to the Minister, in the hope that she will answer them clearly. Will she confirm, or deny, that funding for school sixth forms will be reduced as a result of ELWa's proposals? Does she agree that if there is a reduction in funding to school sixth forms, some will inevitably close?
We will all be listening carefully to the Minister's answers, if she supplies them. If she does not, she must be prepared for a fight, because we will not stand aside and allow her to decimate school sixth forms, and I believe that we will have the support of parents, teachers and pupils across Wales in that.