Funding for 16-18 students in colleges dropped by 18 per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2018-19, according to a new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI).
The report concludes that sixth-form education has been the “biggest real-terms loser of any phase of education”. Thirty years ago, funding was almost 1.5 times higher than that for secondary schools; today it is lower.
The EPI report adds that students in 16-19 education are receiving fewer hours of learning: learning hours with a teacher for students in all institutions fell by 9 per cent between 2012-13 and 2016-17. This fall in taught hours was particularly prominent in academic subjects: level 3 subjects (A level or equivalent) have seen a sharp decline in hours by 21 per cent between 2012-13 and 2016-17.
More on this: Gap between rich and poor pupils ‘stagnating’
Background: Commission calls for 16-19 student premium
Deficits on the rise
The decline in AS level provision has not been offset with increases elsewhere. “This may raise concerns about the curriculum becoming even narrower: upper secondary education in England is already narrow compared to leading education nations in the OECD,” the report adds.
The proportion of providers with in-year deficits has increased across all institutions, with a particularly large rise seen in sixth-form colleges, where there has been a five-fold increase from 7 per cent to 36 per cent between 2010-2011 and 2016-17.
According to EPI, the government should “urgently review the adequacy of 16-19 funding, to understand whether current funding rates are jeopardising the sector’s financial sustainability”. It also calls for an assessment of the resulting impact on the breadth of the post-16 curriculum.
Gerard Dominguez-Reig, senior researcher at the institute, said the research revealed that the “financial health of sixth forms and colleges is particularly precarious”.
'Sharp, real-terms decline in funding'
He added: “The sharp, real-terms decline in funding over nine years has led to larger deficits in 16-19 education institutions, and has taken place alongside a substantial fall in student learning hours, with declines of over 20 per cent in academic subjects.”
David Laws, EPI’s executive chairman, said: "It is not clear why successive governments have chosen to squeeze 16-19 funding, and there is a strong case for reviewing the adequacy of funding before the upcoming spending review. The government should also consider if enough is being done to support disadvantaged students, who are disproportionately concentrated in FE colleges, where teacher pay is significantly lower than that in school sixth forms."
James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said the report “provides further evidence that cuts to education funding for 16- to 19-year-olds have been bad for students, bad for teachers and bad for the financial health of institutions”.
'Overwhelming independent evidence'
He added: “The only way to ensure that our young people receive the sort of high quality education they deserve, and the economy needs to prosper, is to raise the rate of funding for sixth formers in the forthcoming spending review.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “The message is clear; the chancellor cannot go on ignoring the overwhelming independent evidence consistently presented to him. If he is serious about supporting our economy and our communities, he has to get serious about investing in our colleges."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise that 16 to 19 funding rates are challenging for all providers at the moment and are looking carefully at this in the run-up to the next spending review."