After being appointed education secretary last week, Damian Hinds quickly identified improving social mobility as one of his key priorities. The next day, the Education and Skills Funding Agency confirmed that the national funding rate for 16- and 17-year-olds would remain at £4,000 per student for a sixth successive year (and funding for 18-year-old students – often those in need of the greatest support – would remain even lower, at £3,300 per student).
It is difficult to see how any government can make meaningful progress on social mobility while continuing to under-invest in this vital stage of a young person’s education.
Since 2010, successive governments have prioritised investment in other stages of education. As a result, Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, wrote recently that colleges have “been starved of funding on a scale far beyond anything experienced by schools. The neglect of this sector, in both funding and public debate, is extraordinary”.
Of course, it is not just colleges that are struggling – the 16-19 national funding formula leaves all providers equally impoverished – but schools can at least cross-subsidise from the funding they receive to educate younger students and also have their VAT costs reimbursed.
A real opportunity
The new secretary of state has a real opportunity to reverse this historic under-investment, and in turn accelerate progress on social mobility, by honouring the commitment made in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto to “launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole”. This proposal was quickly watered down and is now described in both the government’s industrial strategy and social mobility action plan as a review of post-18 funding.
Tertiary education begins at the age of 16, and so should this review. As our recent funding impact survey highlighted, funding for sixth-form students is now 21 per cent lower than the funding for 11- to 16-year-olds, and 50 per cent less than the average university tuition fee of £8,977 per year.
Why increase investment levels in the stage before sixth-form education and review investment levels in the stage after it, when 16-19 funding lags so far behind both? Part of the answer is political pressure. Schools' funding was a big issue on the doorstep during the last election, and higher education is an emerging battleground as Theresa May attempts to match Jeremy Corbyn’s success with younger voters.
But reviewing different stages of education in isolation can lead politicians to make expensive commitments without considering the opportunity costs. For example, the IFS estimates that the recent decision to increase the income threshold for student loan repayments could eventually cost the government £2 billion per year. And there is growing speculation that a review of tertiary funding could be used to reduce the interest rate on student loans to the rate of inflation, a move that could cost a further £1.3 billion a year and act as “a significant giveaway to high-earning graduates”. Alternatively, the government could adopt the main recommendation of the Support Our Sixth-formers campaign and increase the basic rate of funding for sixth-form students by £200. This would cost just £244 million per year to implement and would help to ensure that young people receive the support and education they need to access higher education in the first place.
The Department for Education’s own data indicates that just 23 per cent of A-level students from state schools and colleges progressed to the most selective universities in 2014-15, compared with 65 per cent of students from the independent sector. This gap in progression rates between the state and independent sector has grown by 6 percentage points since 2008-09, partly because schools and colleges are finding it increasingly difficult to provide the range of non-qualification activities that are essential to raising students’ aspirations, increasing their confidence and providing social capital.
The new secretary of state is someone with a proud record of supporting social mobility and has worked hard to support Alton College in his constituency. He understands how sixth-form education acts as a vital bridge between school and the worlds of higher education and employment. And, as a former exchequer secretary to the Treasury, he will also appreciate the risks of ignoring the opportunity costs of investment decisions. Launching a review of tertiary funding from the age of 16 would be an important step towards boosting levels of social mobility in England – we very much hope that he takes it.
James Kewin is deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA)