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'Protect education funding up to 18'

The best way to support education is through funding, writes Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes

funding compulsory education college FE vocational politics

The best way to support education is through funding, writes Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes

Since 2013, young people have been required by law to participate in some form of education and training up to at least their 18th birthday.

This extension from 16 turned out to be a good example of an orphan policy. It was a Labour government that put through the legislation in 2008 but a coalition government which implemented it five years later. It would have been a brave political decision not to implement it, but it was certainly not owned by the coalition as one of their priorities. 

Five years later still, and the orphan policy which the government has never really owned is now rarely even talked about. It’s not an issue wholly neglected in policy circles, with John Widdowson, CEO at New College Durham, addressing it in "Mending the Gap: Are the needs of 16-18-year olds being met?". It’s a paper well worth reading, with the simple headline plea that raising of the participation age should be reviewed, not in terms of the principle, but in how it has been implemented.  

Orphan policies

That recommendation makes a lot of sense because orphan policies are often implemented very slowly, get changed from the original intentions or are not properly implemented. The proposal for Institutes of Technology, for example, came from a George Osborne productivity announcement in the summer of 2015. It has still not quite happened, and the purpose and focus have mutated many times.  

The participation age is legally extended, but the implementation is very light on monitoring and even lighter on enforcement. Local authorities have had their responsibilities to monitor and ensure implementation softened and word has it that there are a couple of civil servants monitoring it but with no power nor remit to enforce it. Participation at 16 is high, at around 94 per cent, but drops off significantly at age 17 and again at age 18. No action seems to follow. 

Perhaps the most obvious way that the implementation has been weak, though, is in terms of funding. The much-heralded ring-fence for education spending incorporated five-year-olds to 16-year-olds and ignored 16-to 18-year-olds. There was no explanation of why and no logic either. The most sensible way to truly protect education spending would be to look at the legal requirements and extend the ring-fence up to the legal age of participation.  

Lack of protection

That lack of protection has had a big impact. The Department for Education spent £6.7 billion on 16 to 18 education in 2017-18, £1 billion less than in 2010-11. This means that 16- to 18-year-olds have 24 per cent less spent on them than 11- to 16-year-olds. Last week the chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, wrote to the Public Accounts Committee setting out her concerns, based on the evidence from Ofsted inspections, that this funding position is harming the quality of the education for 16- to 18-year-olds. 

We’ve found over 20 other ways in which the funding and policies favour pre-16 to 1- to 18 education, showing that the orphan policy has really suffered in implementation. This is not just a college issue, of course, because schools also receive inadequate participation funding for their sixth formers, but it is heightened for colleges because of the disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged young people who take the college route and because most of our list of advantages are for schools over colleges. In simple terms, this means that 16- to 18-year-olds are more likely to be taught by better-paid staff than in a college. 

So, a decade on from the raising of the participation age seems like a great time to review what’s happened. A simple extension of the funding ring-fence would make the world of difference in terms of flexibility of funding but also to make sure that Treasury and education ministers look at the whole age range and act accordingly. It would also ensure that the needs of the young people are paramount rather than the institution they choose determining the investment made in them. 

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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