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'Raising the participation age must be properly funded'


Richard Atkins, Association of Colleges president, and principal of Exeter College, writes:

From next September all young people in England will be required to remain in education or training until the age of 18. This government, and the previous one, have agreed that if the people of this country are to have the level of skills and knowledge required for a 21st century advanced economy and pluralist society, learning must be mandatory up to the age of 18. For most, it will continue beyond and throughout their adult lives. This is the most significant change in education policy since the raising of the school leaving age in 1972.

In preparation for this important change, a range of new policies have been introduced to improve and develop provision for the two million 16 to 18-year-olds in England. Following Alison Wolf's 2011 report on vocational education, programmes of study have been created, a new funding formula for 16-to-18 year olds has been introduced and there are new requirements for young people to continue to study English and maths.

Apprenticeships have changed, with significant quality improvements, and following the Richard review, more changes are planned. Traineeships have been introduced as a pre-apprenticeship route for young people. Major changes to the academic curriculum begin next year, with the move back to two-year linear A Levels with final assessment only. These changes have, largely, been timely, appropriate and reflect a new era in English education policy. Many of the changes to date have been welcomed and supported, including by England's 233 FE and 93 sixth form colleges, in which 700,000 of these 16 to 18-year-olds study.

One fundamental aspect of government policy which has not been reviewed or changed is funding levels for 16 to 18-year-olds compared with other publicly funded learners. I accept that the government is still working hard  to eliminate the national deficit and improve the nation's finances, and therefore that the totality of funding will probably reduce, but this is no reason not to review how the limited funding available is divided up between different age groups.

In England the average funding for a secondary school pupil aged 11-16 is £5,000 per year, while for a university student aged 18-plus, tuition fees average £8,500. For all 16 to 18-year-olds, whether in schools or colleges, the funding level is £4,000 per year. This is unusual and peculiarly English. In independent schools, parents pay higher fees for the sixth form and in other OECD countries funding increases in the upper secondary phases.

Three recent government policies have made this situation worse for young people. Firstly, by ring fencing and protecting education funding for 5 to 16-year-olds, the Department for Education has had few places to go when the Treasury sought annual budget cuts and funding for 16 to 18-year-olds has suffered accordingly. Secondly, by increasing the size of students' programmes and requiring them to study more, the reduced funding has had to be spread even more thinly. Thirdly, capacity has been increased and empty places funded in new institutions while small scale and inefficient provision has also been funded.

For colleges the situation has been exacerbated by last year's punitive cut of 17.5 per cent to the funding of all 18-year-old students, most of whom started at a lower point at age 16 and are progressing to a higher level of achievement, such as a technical or professional level 3 qualification.

Some colleges have responded to these year-on-year funding cuts by being increasingly enterprising and commercial, although there are still some barriers that inhibit this work. They have acquired training businesses, pursued international opportunities and sponsored UTCs, academies and free schools.

However, no one has discovered the holy grail of private sector income replacing government funding. For most FE and all sixth form college’s core business remains the education and training of 16 to 18-year-olds and their largest income stream comes from the Education Funding Agency.

The Association of Colleges argues that the time is right for a once in a generation review of the way public funding is spread across the various age groups. We argue that present funding trends cannot continue, and our young people aged 16 to 18 deserve better. We shall be putting the case strongly this year for an independent review of public education funding in a society in which all are expected to be in learning from ages 3 to 18. Now is the time to complete the policy of raising the participation age.


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