Clause 34 - 16 to 19 Academy: designation as having a religious character

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:30 pm ar 7 Rhagfyr 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 35 and 36 stand part.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Clause 34 provides the Secretary of State with an order-making power to enable the designation of 16-to-19 academies as having a religious character. It also provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations about the procedures relating to the designation. In addition, it sets out the freedoms and protections relating to religious education, collective worship and governance that the designation provides. The clause will ensure that when existing sixth form colleges designated with a religious character convert to academies they retain their religious character and associated freedoms and protections. It will also enable new and existing 16-to-19 academies to be designated with a religious character in the future. The Government are committed to supporting existing sixth-form colleges to convert to academy status. I am pleased that a significant proportion of them have already taken that step, and are making a strong contribution to strengthening the academy sector.

Clause 35 improves the efficiency of administration of the further education sector. It is thankfully rare for a further education body to enter into insolvency proceedings. However, where a designation order can form part of a rescue procedure, we need to ensure that it can take place swiftly, minimising disruption to learners and costs to the taxpayers. For some FE bodies in financial difficulty, it may be desirable to transfer the college institution from the insolvent FE body to a new solvent company as part of the process of exiting insolvency proceedings. To ensure that the institution remains within the statutory further education sector in order to keep it appropriately regulated, it would then need to be immediately designated accordingly. Existing legislation requires the Secretary of State to make a statutory instrument when he seeks to carry out such a designation. That process can take several months, and needs a completion date to be specified significantly in advance, which could complicate and delay the exit from insolvency proceedings. Delays impose a longer period of disruption on learners and could generate extra costs to the taxpayer. As such, clause 35 allows the Secretary of State to use an administrative order, which can be enacted relatively quickly, to designate an institution as being within the statutory further education sector.

Clause 36 relates to the high-level quality rating for higher education providers without an approved access and participation plan, which is currently an award under the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework. Higher education providers with a TEF award currently benefit from an uplift to their fee limit, meaning that they are able to charge a higher level than HE providers without such an award. There is currently an error in the legislation that could prevent a timely link between TEF awards and a provider’s fee limit. To take an example, let us consider a provider that does not have an approved access and participation plan. If that provider is entitled to the TEF fee uplift in any academic year, it is dependent on whether it had an award on 1 January in the calendar year before the relevant academic year. That means that a provider seeking to charge the TEF fee uplift in academic year 2022-23 could only do so based on an award that was in force in January 2021, rather than January 2022, which was the original intent. Clause 36 will correct that error and ensure a more timely link between fee limits and the TEF award, helping to further incentivise excellence in higher education.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Sorry, I have got all tangled up here; give me a moment, Mrs Miller. For the sake of those listening on the radio, my hearing aid has got stuck in my mask.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke

It is usually an earring with me, I have to say.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Sorry, what did you say? [Laughter.]

We do not intend to divide the Committee on clauses 34 to 36. We think it is important that the law does not discriminate against academies or institutions for having a religious character designation, should they wish to do so. Clause 34 would change the rules so that when the Department next seeks to create 16-to-19 academies, it will be possible for organisations to apply to set up one with a religious character. Ministers intend to change the law to ensure equality for technical education in school careers advice, and to allow religious sixth forms to academise. A group of 14 sixth-form colleges that are Catholic run have so far been prevented from doing so due to their religious character; this clause would overturn that obstacle.

We recognise that there are many excellent academies out there, just as there were many excellent state-maintained schools. We think it is regrettable that the Government have decided to prioritise academies over schools run by local authorities. I have a very personal reason for saying that: my children went to an outstanding school that was run under the local council. Unfortunately, due to its finances, it was forced into a position where it took on academy status, and ultimately, that academy was described as a failing school. The desire to drive that school into academy status caused really significant problems. It is my view that the academies that the Labour Government created were a positive thing, and that there are many excellent academies out there. However, we think that the Government should remain neutral on this issue, rather than trying to force schools down one route or the other.

Notwithstanding that, we support the changes in clause 34. Sixth-form colleges should not be discriminated against if they have a religious designation and wish to become academies.

Clause 35 assigns a designation to terms in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. We can support the clause given that is sets out the designations of institutions in the FE sector relating to the 1992 Act. Clause 36 is a technical change that clarifies the relevant date, for purposes of fee limit, for certain higher education courses, as set out by the Minister. We are happy to support the clause, which sets out the determination of the fee limit.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 34 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 35 and 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.