Education for 16-19 students has faced pressure like no other phase in education. School sixth forms, sixth-form colleges and further education institutions have been on the receiving end of a sustained funding squeeze by governments of all colours - losing out to schools for over 30 years.
While this won’t come as news to those working in the sector, there has been a lack of research exploring its impact on the millions of young people attending these institutions.
A new report published today by the Education Policy Institute does just that. Our research finds that since 2010, funding per student has fallen by 16 per cent from £5,900 to £4,960 – that’s twice as large as the widely reported cuts to school funding. Within this, school sixth forms and sixth-form colleges have seen more significant falls than further education colleges. But what are the consequences of this longstanding decline?
Previous research has warned that post-16 education in England is uniquely narrow, compared to successful education systems where learners study subjects such as science, maths, arts and languages, right up until the age of 18.
'Concerning' drop in learning hours
It is not uncommon for students to drop English and maths altogether at age 16, despite alarming evidence from the OECD showing that England is one of the few countries where its youngest people are the lowest achieving age group in literacy and numeracy.
It is therefore concerning to find that learning hours in sixth forms and colleges have shrunk by 9 per cent between 2012-13 and 2016-17, suggesting that the curriculum has slimmed even further.
The most significant falls are in academic qualifications, which plummeted by 21 per cent.
Languages and literature bearing the brunt
The decrease was most acute from 2015-16, when AS and A levels were decoupled, as the fall in AS levels was never offset with more hours at A level or elsewhere. A rise in learning hours for vocational subjects of 18 per cent has gone a small way, but not all the way, to mitigate the decline in overall provision.
With provision in sixth forms and colleges shrinking, which subjects have taken the biggest hit?
We found that two of the subjects that experienced the sharpest falls were languages and literature (falling by 25 per cent) and science and maths (falling by 10 per cent). This is certainly concerning, as young people in England are unique within developed countries in having lower levels of literacy and numeracy skills than retirees.
This may have severe implications. Young people are now set to join an ever more rapidly changing labour market with lower skills than their predecessors. The current education offer at this level is simply not wired to fix that.
More of the same?
Interestingly, we see that despite overall A-level provision growing, most of this growth has concentrated in “facilitating subjects”, such as maths, history and geography, which increase the likelihood of being accepted into leading universities. This demonstrates how the intensive focus on progression into higher education has driven changes in provision. It’s not clear that labour market needs are having a similar effect.
While our report shows that provision has fallen substantially over the past few years, and these decreases may worsen skills shortages – can we expect such trends to persist?
In short, yes. Worryingly, our analysis suggests that levels of provision will drop even further, as an increasing number of education providers have in-year deficits. Over half of schools with sixth-form provision have in-year deficits – with the figure standing at 40 per cent for further education colleges, and 36 per cent for sixth-form colleges.
This is a far from promising outlook for the financial health of the sector, and suggests that providers have accrued even greater deficits to cushion falls in funding levels. The key question is - how long are providers able accommodate such falls in funding before we see even more significant impacts on students?
The evidence of a sector under pressure is now overwhelming. If we want a 16-19 education system that provides young people with skills for the 21st century, and protects the least-advantaged, then the government needs to reconsider its core funding rate to broaden provision - or risk leaving vast numbers of students behind.
Gerard Domínguez-Reig is a senior researcher at the Education Policy Institute