The squeeze on school spending is high on the public agenda and school resources are undoubtedly under pressure.
However, it is further education and sixth form colleges that have seen the largest cuts to spending per student over the last eight years. While seeking to deliver a high-quality education on dwindling resources, they are also being asked (yet again) to deliver substantial reforms.
Since cuts to public spending began to kick in from 2010 onwards, education as a whole has seen lower cuts on average than most other areas of public spending – and some parts of the education sector have seen increases in resources. Spending on early years has been prioritised, with successive increases in the entitlement to early years education and childcare.
Higher education saw increases in resources as a result of the reforms to higher education funding in 2012. Total spending per pupil on schools has fallen by 8 per cent in real-terms since 2010, but this has been mainly driven by cuts to local authority spending on school services and functions. Budgets allocated direct to schools have been more protected and are currently about 4 per cent below their historic peak in 2015.
Sector 'treated less generously'
In contrast, spending per student in further education and sixth form colleges has fallen by 8 per cent in real-terms since 2010. Following earlier squeezes, this leaves it about the same level as in the mid-2000s and only about 10 per cent higher than in 1990. By contrast, spending per pupil up to age 16 is more than 60 per cent higher than it was in 1990. Spending per student in school sixth forms has fallen much more dramatically – by about 25 per cent since 2010.
This severe hit reflects the fact that spending per student was higher in school sixth forms than in colleges and a new funding formula was implemented that sought to put colleges and school sixth form funding on a similar footing. Nevertheless, funding per student in school sixth forms is currently lower than at any point since at least 2002.
Sixth forms and colleges play an important role in the education system in England. They prepare students for higher education and the world of work. Yet not only has this been the sector most squeezed since 2010, but this also follows a long-run pattern of being treated less generously than other parts of the education system.
Sixth forms and colleges have also seen their fair share of reforms over recent decades, and longer. A-levels have seen at least two major reforms, Diplomas were planned and then abandoned, funding bodies have changed frequently, funding rules and formulae have been changed and there have been major reviews of the sector about every five years. This is before we start to talk about individual learner accounts or Train to Gain.
T level cash will 'do little' to alleviate squeeze
The sector is now being tasked with delivering T levels, the new vocational qualification aimed at improving the quality and prestige of technical education. This comes with additional funding of over £400 million per year by 2022. However, this funding is focused on increasing hours of teaching by 50 per cent for technical routes. It will, therefore, do little to alleviate the squeeze on resources in further education.
The other main policy focus for FE is on increasing both the number and quality of apprenticeships. The apprenticeship levy is due to raise about £2.7 billion in revenue for use in digital accounts by 2019. However, about three-quarters of this is expected to be a tax rise, with total spending on apprenticeships only expected to increase by about £600 million by 2019. Apprenticeship starts to date in 2017-18 (the first year of the apprenticeship levy) are also one third down on where they were last year.
It has long been recognised that there a need to improve technical skills in the UK. However, there isn’t a consensus on what the further education sector should be focused on. Sometimes, policymakers have emphasised general skills. At other times (as now with apprenticeships and T-levels), there is a big push on specific occupational skills. Engaging employers in the process of shaping the further education sector has also been the big challenge. This was meant to happen more as a result of the new apprenticeship levy but hasn’t really occurred in any significant way yet.
Colleges and sixth forms have seen the largest cuts to spending per student since 2010 across all areas of education for young people. There has also been a flurry of policy activity, with many laudable goals to improve technical education and the way it is viewed. Delivering new T levels will represent a substantial challenge, even for a sector where squeezed resources and permanent revolution are par for the course.
Luke Sibieta is a research fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies