This week, we’ve seen colleges up and down the country coming together to highlight the critical role that they play, for people, communities and our country. As Labour’s shadow education secretary, I’ve been listening to college principals, staff and students and they have had a clear message: after years of cuts, their funding comes nowhere near what they need.
It is a point that we have heard from others, too, including experts and employers. Reports from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Ofsted and the Confederation of British Industry all show that further education has suffered from austerity more than any part of the education system.
The scale of underinvestment
The EPI report, 16-19 Education Funding: Trends and Implications, found that 16- to 19-year-olds have been the biggest real-terms losers of any phase of education since 2010-11. Thirty years ago, 16-19 funding was far higher (almost 1.5 times) than secondary school funding. Now it is lower.
Between 2010-11 and 2018-19, real-terms funding per student in school sixth forms, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges dropped by 16 per cent, nearly a sixth, from £5,900 to £4,960. The terrible toll of cuts on schools is bad enough but this is twice the rate that even the schools budget fell over the same period.
We in the Labour Party are clear that colleges are a central part of both our education system and our communities, providing high-quality education and training opportunities to people right throughout their lives.
Getting back into education
And I know this personally, too. For me, my local college was the place where I returned, having had children, to get back into education and it played a critical role in me getting to where I am now. This story is ever more common for colleagues on the Labour benches – and in fact on other sides of the House as well.
As we develop our plans for a National Education Service – a cradle-to-grave education system, free at the point of use to all – we know that colleges have a central role to play. Indeed, we’re looking closely at this as a part of the lifelong learning review that we are currently undertaking. With changes in the nature of work, technological developments and longer lives, more and more of us will need and want to access education and training throughout our lives.
So, we will need more opportunity for education and training, not less. That is why what the Tory government has done to FE funding is so dangerous: slashing adult education funding, precisely when we need investment in skills; a real-terms cut in 16-18 funding precisely when other countries are pumping money into these groups; and introducing T levels without backing it up with the proper resource, such that the AoC has said that many T level courses will be loss making for colleges.
There is hope
Yet there is hope. With the right strategy, investment and coordination, we can achieve so much. As we have developed the National Education Service, we have been inundated with innovative ideas for an integrated, world-class education system, which we will implement as a Labour government. And we are consistently struck by the passion, dedication and quality of the people who work within our colleges.
Significantly, we have seen cross-party support for college building over recent months, with a raft of parliamentary debates and a letter signed by 165 backbench MPs making the case for fair funding, and with strong representation from MPs from all sides of the House.
We in the Labour Party are clear that we love our colleges. We’ll do all we can to call for them to receive the increase in funding that they need and deserve in any upcoming spending review process, and will be keen to work with everyone to achieve it.
And when a future Labour government builds our National Education Service, colleges will sit right at the heart of it.
Angela Rayner is Labour's shadow education secretary