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'It seems to me successive governments have had it in for sixth-form colleges'

Cuts in education spending are resurfacing despite government insistence that they have done all they can to protect spending, writes one education journalist

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Cuts in education spending are resurfacing despite government insistence that they have done all they can to protect spending, writes one education journalist

A hard-hitting report which would have landed on education secretary Justine Greening's desk this week will remind her that it is not just about grammar schools when it comes to the problems surrounding education.

Cuts in education spending are rearing their ugly head again despite government insistence that they have done all they can to protect spending.

I can recall praising her predecessor, Nicky Morgan, for the settlement she won from the last public spending review from then chancellor George Osborne (remember him?), when the government's pledge to maintain funding for five to 16 education, was extended to cover sixth-formers as well.

In addition, sixth-form colleges were given a lifeline to escape having to make VAT payments if they adopted academy status.

Judging by new figures from the Sixth-Form Colleges Association, though, it has not been enough to stave off cuts.

Some of the results of their survey, of course, stem from the year before that pledge was made - like the decision by 39 per cent of colleges to drop modern foreign language courses and the fact that 84 per cent report larger class sizes.

More worrying, though, is the finding that 64 per cent of colleges say they will be unable to offer the support they need to provide for disadvantaged students - and that 90 per cent of colleges are concerned about their long term financial situation.

The plight of sixth-form colleges has seldom strayed from the headlines when the issue of the impact of education cuts is debated.

It is, of course, true that the decision by former prime minister David Cameron's government to exempt 16 to 18 education spending from the pledge to protect funding, affected school sixth-forms as well.

They, though, did have the option of shoring up sixth-form provision by using money allocated to them for teaching younger year groups.

It seems to me that successive governments - whether they be Labour, Coalition or Conservative - have had it in for sixth-form colleges.

Lord Adonis encouraged schools - particularly academies - to open sixth-form provision when he was schools minister. The thinking behind promoting school sixth-forms was explained to me once by Sheila Lawlor, of the right-of-centre think-tank Politeia. Ms Lawlor argued that it gave teachers more incentive and job satisfaction to prepare A-level classes. Ultimately, that impacted on the ethos and standards set by the school.

I don't doubt that is the case, but think on this. The sheer size of sixth-form colleges (with an average of around 1,000 pupils) enables them to offer a broader range of subject options than school sixth-form. Their results, in most cases, are pretty impressive, too.

The point is they won't be able to continue to offer that broad of options if they are squeezed too hard. Ministers should think on this when weighing up the options as to whether to allocate resources for sixth-form college spending or create new school sixth-forms.

It's a rich man's world 

There was something about Richard Vaughan's interview with Justine Greening in last week's TES which reminded me of the days before I wrote about education and worked as a disc jockey on a hospital radio station.

I used to dream up appropriate songs for people in the public eye to sing. In Ms Greening's case, after being repeatedly asked to give her wholehearted backing for Theresa May's grammar school proposals, it would have been Silence is Golden by The Tremeloes. 

Let's hope that Theresa May is never tempted to sing about her relationship with Ms Greening's department - I have an awful feeling the most appropriate song might be the Rolling Stones' Under My Thumb.

Then, with news of the NUT and ATL linking up, how about: It Takes Two by Marvyn Gaye and Tammy Terrell for a duet by the two general secretaries, Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney. 

An obvious one for primary school head Sir Craig Tunstall, who is reported to be earning £374,000 a year, would be Money by The Beatles.

Can you come up with any others?

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years and has been writing about education for more than three decades.

His book on education, The Thirty Years War, which chronicles and analyses the battles between teachers and politicians over the past three decades, is published today and available here.  

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