As principals of the 12 sixth form colleges in London, we are writing to express our dismay at the Government’s plan to spend £45m on the Harris Westminster Sixth Form (“The most expensive free school in Britain?”, 29 March).
Our colleges have experienced three budget cuts in three years, and we expect the Government to attempt to make a fourth cut to our funding later this year. As The Independent reported in February, this has led some institutions to cut courses and increase class sizes. In January, the Government said it could not introduce a VAT refund scheme for the sixth form college sector (to mirror the arrangements in place for free school sixth forms) as the £30m cost was unaffordable.
So it is entirely unjust that £45m has been found to establish an institution that will educate less than a fifth of the number of students currently enrolled at some of the existing sixth form colleges in London. The total capital budget for all 93 sixth form colleges in England last year was less than £60m.
Michael Gove is establishing institutions like the Harris Westminster Sixth Form to break down what he has described as the “Berlin Wall” between the state and independent sectors. He has only succeeded in creating a new divide – between new, generously funded and often highly selective free school sixth forms and the very successful network of state sixth form colleges they are modelled on.
The sixth form colleges in London have an excellent record of supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress to top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, and we do so without highly selective admissions policies. It does not make educational or economic sense to divert scarce resources away from the 20,000 16- to 18-year-olds currently studying at a sixth form college in London to benefit 500 young people at a highly selective institution in a very expensive part of the city.
We urge the Secretary of State to rethink his decision to spend £45m on this new institution, and ask that he redirect the investment to address the growing crisis in sixth form college funding.
Ken Warman, BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College
Eddie Playfair, Newham Sixth Form College
Jane Overbury, Christ the King Sixth Form College
Paul O’Shea, Saint Charles Catholic Sixth Form College
Brett Freeman, Coulsdon Sixth Form College
Andrew Parkin, Saint Dominic’s Sixth Form College
Paul Wakeling, Havering Sixth Form College
Stella Flannery, Saint Francis Xavier Sixth Form College
Tim Eyton-Jones, John Ruskin College
Paolo Ramella, Sir George Monoux Sixth Form College
Kevin Watson, Leyton Sixth Form College
John Rubinstein, Woodhouse College
Your story “The most expensive free school in Britain?” contained inaccuracies and did not present a complete picture.
Westminster Sixth Form is an exciting and innovative project focused on the poorest in society that has never been tried before. At full capacity it will offer 300 places in each year group, giving hundreds of children from low-income families the kind of top-quality sixth form previously reserved for the better off. Westminster Sixth Form was assessed for value for money using standard Treasury tests and it passed precisely because it will open up opportunities to disadvantaged young people and their families.
Free schools offer good value for money and are opening at a fraction of the cost of previous programmes – new schools are now being built around 40 per cent cheaper than under the former government’s Building Schools for the Future programme. So far we have opened 174 free schools for 80,000 pupils, with the vast majority in areas facing a shortage of school places or in deprived communities.
It is also wrong and irresponsible to say that “there is expected to be a shortage of 240,000 primary school places by 2015”. We are giving councils £5bn to spend on new school places over this parliament – double the amount allocated by the previous government over a comparable period. This has already created 260,000 new school places, and many more are due to be delivered by 2015.
Lord Nash, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, Department for Education
Black box that would stay afloat
The “black box” of the missing Malaysian airliner has not yet been recovered. We are told that it emits a locating signal once the aircraft crashes, but that it is difficult to detect if the aircraft has sunk into deep water, and furthermore is only emitted for about 30 days while the batteries contain sufficient charge.
Would it not be possible to incorporate an additional device into aircraft that would be designed to break free and float in the event of the plane landing in the sea? Such a device would emit a locating “ping” detectable from satellites and could incorporate a solar charger in order to maintain battery power indefinitely until the device is retrieved. Surely this is within the capabilities of aviation engineers.
Jonathan Wallace, Newcastle upon Tyne
We need more Tories like Tapsell
I wish a very happy retirement to Sir Peter Tapsell MP, who is standing down at the next election, but it will be a great shame to see him go.
He has been a Keynesian and pro-Commonwealth opponent of the Euro-federalist project from the start. He was scathingly anti-Thatcherite, to the point that, in 1981, he became the first Conservative to vote against a Conservative Budget since Harold Macmillan in the 1930s.
He has consistently opposed the neo-conservative wars all the way back to Kosovo, and only in the last fortnight he was asking on the floor of the House why, if Scotland could have a referendum on dissolving constitutional arrangements that went all the way back to 1707, Crimea could not have one on those which dated only from 1954.
He has called for a return to the division between retail banking and investment banking.
He has identified, in their seasons, the money markets, the media moguls and the intelligence agencies as the heirs of the nabobs and of the Whig magnates whom past generations of Tories had made it their defining cause to cut down to size and to subject to the sovereignty of Parliament.
Regardless of party, some other such figure must be elected in 2015. But who?
David Lindsay, Lanchester, Co Durham
Crimea: dangerous precedents
President Putin should bear in mind the adage about people who live in glass houses. The Russian Federation is a patchwork of nationalities and ethnic minorities whose disgruntled separatist elements must have learned something from the Crimea situation. Former Soviet allies may now see their Russian connections and Russian communities as potential pretexts for Anschluss and persuade them to seek better protection.
Hamid Elyassi, London E14
The UN has set a dangerous precedent in declaring the referendum in Crimea illegal. It was a secret ballot, and with 96 per cent voting in favour with an 80 per cent turnout, the result must be democratically safe.
If the argument is that the whole of Ukraine should have voted, then we need a referendum to establish whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or become part of a united Ireland, with the whole of Ireland voting.
Malcolm Howard, Banstead, Surrey
Russia has annexed Crimea illegally but in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the people who live there. Israel annexed East Jerusalem illegally and contrary to the wishes of the majority of the people who live there.
Why are we applying sanctions against Russia but not Israel?
Gordon Broadbent, London SW15
Where is our pension compensation?
While Osborne may have decided to change the rules about how people coming up to retirement can use their “pension pot”, he was carefully silent about the millions of us who were constrained by the previous regime. If it is true that pensioners have lost out on the purchase of their annuities, should there not be some form of redress similar to the repayment of PPI. Perhaps it is time to refund some of the excessive fees and review the parsimonious interest rates that have condemned so many of us to a “baked beans” old age.
Simon Piney, Stroud, Gloucestershire
Reasons to boycott robot checkouts
All those readers who find automated checkouts distressing should note that the evidence of many studies suggests that the process of using one is also slower than using a manned till. Their sole purpose is to save on staff salaries, thus putting people out of work. If we all refused to use them (as I do) and insisted on using manned tills not only would they disappear, but the time we spend in queues and at the checkout would be diminished.
Michael O’Hare, Northwood, Middlesex