Government 'starving' post-16 education, says AoC president

23rd September 2017 at 08:03
In her first interview as president of the Association of Colleges, Alison Birkinshaw sets out concerns over funding

The lack of investment in post-16 education means that students are being short-changed, according to the new president of the Association of Colleges. Alison Birkinshaw, principal of York College, told Tes in an exclusive interview that colleges like hers were doing their “absolute best” to give students a broad education, but this had come at a cost, and she was “not sure how long we can continue to do that now”.

“Government has to see that it cannot starve post-16 education funding in this way, because it is going to impact later on down the line on the skills our students have,” she said.

Funding pressures have also had a knock-on effect on college staff pay. A national pay freeze in 2015-16, which resulted in strike action in colleges across the country, was followed by a below-inflation, 1 per cent pay rise in 2016-17. On Tuesday, AoC proposed a further 1 per cent pay rise for 2017-18, leaving unions “disappointed”.

Birkinshaw said additional funding was needed to ensure that staff get the pay they deserve. “Even giving staff a decent pay award is a major challenge, because the cost and the income don’t meet any more,” she said. “It is an absolute imperative that we do something about that.”

While extra funding promised by the Department for Education to pay for the introduction of the new T levels – eventually rising to more £500 million a year – was a positive development, financial pressures on the entire post-16 sector needed to be addressed, she added.

Not surprisingly, Birkinshaw signalled her backing for the Support Our Sixthformers campaign being run by the AoC, the Association of School and College Leaders and the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which is calling for a £200-per-student uplift in post-16 funding.

“That would really go a long way in dealing with some of those funding gaps that we have got,” she said. “It would help us recruit staff, invest in the equipment we need, it would help us save minority subjects from going under.”

'They would be shocked'

The funding pressure was one of two key issues that persuaded Birkinshaw to stand for AoC president. The other was the contentious issue of GCSE English and maths resits. The government has made it a condition of colleges’ funding that students who only achieve a D or 3 in English or maths will have to retake the qualification. This has caused the overall number of entries among students aged 17 and over to increase significantly.

Birkinshaw suggested it was time to get rid of the policy. “I think it is important to emphasise that I do see it as important to work with our students to make sure they are literate and numerate,” she added. “But the curriculum for English, in particular, is just so inappropriate.

“If the policymakers actually looked at the specifications that they are making our hospitality and catering or our motor-vehicle students sit, they would be really shocked. I would also challenge our policymakers to sit the exam themselves and see what mark they would get, because it is really hard.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 22 September edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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