Better information is needed about the impact of government reforms to increase the number of 16- to18-year-olds taking part in education or training, according to a new report.
The report by the National Audit Office, published yesterday, says the overall value for money for 16-18-year-old learning increased after ministers raised the participation age and cut funding.
At the end of 2013, 81.2 per cent of 16-18-year-olds were in education and government-funded training, compared with 79.2 per cent at the end of 2012.
In 2013, the proportion of 16-18-year-olds classed as Neet (not in education, training or employment) fell to 7.6 per cent, its lowest level for 20 years.
All this has been achieved despite the fact that in 2013-14, the Department for Education’s core budget for the age group was 8 per cent lower than in 2010-11.
The report says recent data showing a 2.8 percentage point increase in 16-year-olds’ participation is likely to be, in part, because they are now told that they have to stay in education or training.
However, it says the DfE needs better information so it knows which of its reforms have made a difference: “The Department has made a major contribution to these improvements but the relative impact of its various reforms is unclear", it says.
This is particularly important if the DfE is to take the right decisions in future about which reforms to keep and which to stop, or change, to improve value for money, it adds.
Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The DfE has introduced a raft of reforms and it needs to do more to understand the impact of all these changes to make sure young people are getting the high quality advice and relevant skills they need to get on the job ladder and achieve their potential.”
Colleges said they have worked hard to make sure young people stay in education or training until the age of 18 and to help reduce the number of Neets, but warned they could not cope with further cuts.
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “In the next few months, education secretary Nicky Morgan has some tough decisions to make about the funding her department provides to educate and train 16 to 18-year-olds.
“Further government reductions, exacerbating those already handed out, could result in less course choice for students and the achievements of the past few years being at risk.
“Education for this age group has already taken its fair share of cuts – it is time for Ministers to look elsewhere to make savings.”
Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, said the reforms have placed additional pressure on colleges, and further cuts would be “untenable.”
“While many of the reforms have undoubtedly had benefits, colleges have had to implement many reforms at once, and it is right that we should take time now to be sure of what really makes a difference,” she said.
The report also raises concerns about careers advice and guidance. After the government stopped funding the local authority-run Connexion, schools and colleges have had a duty to secure independent advice for students.
But last September Ofsted found that good-quality advice was ‘patchy’ and most schools’ provision was not independent.
The report says that if large numbers of Ofsted assessments remain critical, the DfE should reconsider its role with regard to careers advice.
“The Department has a clear and ambitious agenda to make careers advice independent and inspirational,” it says.
“If schools do not adopt its approach, it needs to be ready to intervene more directly; otherwise young people will not see the benefits.”
A Department for Education spokesman said:"The NAO is clear in this report that our plan for education is delivering value for taxpayers’ money while helping thousands more young people fulfil their potential.
"It says that the changes we have made to funding post-16 education so that it is per-student rather than per-qualification are central to this success. It means providers are now incentivised to ensure young people study courses that will help them get on in life."