Expansion at colleges' expense

Julian Gravatt

The five-year strategy from the Department for Education and Skills is mainly about schools, but it has many implications for colleges. Over the next five years, the Government promises more freedom for schools, including the chance to expand their 16 to 18 provision. An expansion of city academies is promised, adding more 16 to 18 places.

High-performing secondary schools will be able to set up foundation partnerships which can take over jobs previously kept by local councils.

One of them is the management of 14 to 19 provision. Funding stability for schools will be brought by three-year budgets, offering a rising amount per pupil each year.

The issues for colleges in this school reform agenda are not stated but are easily calculated. The strategy will direct an increasing share of the DfES budget towards schools at a time when the total budget is rising more slowly than it has up to now.

This could place colleges under increasing financial pressure from 2005-6 onwards. If this year was tough in your college, next year could be worse.

At the same time, the strategy anticipates a steady expansion of the numbers in school sixth forms. They attracted 15,000 more students than the 350,000 target this year, creating a pound;60 million overspend on this line in the Learning and Skills Council budget. Over the next few years, the DfES plans further growth to help to cater for the 100,000 extra 16 to 18 places that will be needed by 2008.

The focus of this growth will be in two areas: first, the parts of the country where there are not many sixth forms, and second, the areas where success rates are lowest.

The strategy does not state which parts of the country are affected but it is easy to work out. The lowest achievement rates at 16 to 18 are in disadvantaged urban areas such as the West Midlands or South Yorkshire. The areas with the fewest school sixth forms, by contrast, include better-off places such as Hampshire which have a well-developed network of sixth-form colleges and high academic achievement. In absolute terms, the lowest numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds in sixth forms are in the two northern regions, which are also the areas with the lowest population growth.

If the Government really does want to fast-track sixth-form provision, it might not take much to destabilise high-quality provision in existing institutions. Oddly, the strategy considers this issue with no mention of the LSC's strategic area reviews.

The DfES strategy focuses mainly on action, but it does contain some preliminary analysis on why reform is necessary. There is a fascinating table on page 15 which compares UK performance against the average in the 30 wealthy countries represented in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. There are eight measures ranging from the proportion of toddlers in education to the completion rate on university courses.

The good news is that the UK is above average on five of the measures, including all three relating directly to primary and secondary schools.

The three areas where the UK falls short all involve further education. The proportion of 17-year-olds in education is well below the average in our competitor countries. The UK also falls short in the numbers entering higher education and adult basic skills. Taken together, the table confirms that the greatest weaknesses in the UK system compared to our benchmarks are in post-16 education at level 2 and 3 qualifications.

At this stage of the report, no specific blame is attached for this failure. The system as a whole is at fault. As it says, there is a fundamental weakness in equality of opportunity. Children who perform worse at seven or 11 in school are less likely to get GCSEs or degrees. This is the Government's justification for the reform of school education, but it does not explain the changes at 16 to 18.

You might assume that the weaknesses in post-16 learning and skills identified by the Government's own data would act as the focus for directing resources, but this is not so. Government funding policies mean that it costs more to educate a 16 to 18-year-old in a sixth form than in alternative institutions. Expansion will have a price that will no doubt be paid from the LSC's hard-pressed budget. As we are already seeing in 20045, there is not enough money to meet all the demands on the LSC budget.

At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that schools do not keep the 16-year-olds at the wrong end of the educational divide. Fewer than one in five young people with education maintenance allowances in the pilot areas studies in schools.

EMAs are targeted on families with low incomes. The vast majority of those staying on in schools are those with good GCSEs who have already done well out of the system. Put together, the result of the policy is to put more government money in 16 to 18 education where it is needed least.

The question to address is whether this will really enhance quality and choice or simply undermine colleges which already deliver both.

Julian Gravatt is director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges

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Julian Gravatt

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