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'Funding cuts for 18 year-olds are radical, regressive and deeply worrying'

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of 157 Group of FE colleges, writes:

The announcement of a 17.5 per cent funding cut for 18-year-old students took the education world by surprise. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t have; after all, the change to the participation age has clearly signalled that 16- and 17-year-olds are legally different to those who are older; and in the autumn statement the chancellor announced new arrangements for apprentices aged 16 and 17, rather than the usual 16-18 formulation.

But surprising or not, these changes, which the Department for Education (DfE) has been seeking desperately to downplay, are radical, regressive and deeply worrying.

The changes are radical because up to now post-16 funding has been based on the age of a student when they start a course. It has been a central principle that funding rates do not change partway through a programme of study just because the student is one year older.

The same principle has been applied to apprentices – up to now the 16-18 rate has applied throughout their programme to those who begin before their 19th birthday. The injustice of the new system is compounded in the first year because the cut will be retrospective – the rules have been changed for those on programmes longer than one year after the programme has begun. 

These changes are regressive because they disproportionately affect the disadvantaged. It should not be surprising that those who have suffered social or educational deprivation take a little longer than most to reach their full potential. Many students who have been let down by the school system need to take a full year in FE to gain level 2 before a further two years to achieve a level 3.

Government officials, however, seem not only to have been surprised by this, but to be in a state of denial. Long after the decision was taken they published an impact assessment seeking to downplay the effect of the change by presenting a misleading analysis of inadequate data.

The analysis is deeply worrying and potentially misleading since it compares the characteristics of 18-year-olds not with 16- and 17-year-olds, but with 16-18-year-olds as a whole. Presenting the figures in the way they chose minimises the differences between the two groups.

Even so, the impact assessment cannot wholly deny that those affected are more likely to be from disadvantaged or black and ethnic minority backgrounds as all those familiar with FE will know.

The data used by the DfE ignores all students studying in school sixth forms. Since colleges recruit from more diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds than most schools, leaving out so many pupils from the comparison calls into question the DfE figures.

Moreover, in seeking to estimate the numbers of 18-year-olds affected, it ignores those in colleges in 2012-13 studying between 450 hours (the 12-13 definition of full time) and 539 hours (the threshold that will apply in 14-15). The impact on all, including FE, therefore is significantly understated.

Finally, the policy is socially and economically worrying. All parties are clear that in an increasingly competitive world we need to help as many citizens as possible to gain skills at level 3 or above.

This change undermines that drive by hitting, in the main, students who are partway through level 3 programmes. If they fail and drop out of education at this point, they have only five further years before public support for study ceases altogether and they will need to take out a loan. This does not seem an approach best calculated to develop a highly-skilled workforce for the 21st century.

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