Spring Budget: Is this really fair funding for colleges?

Everyone should be able to benefit from a properly funded, high-quality education – whether they decide upon an academic or vocational path

James Kewin

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Yesterday’s pre-Budget announcement that £500 million per year will be injected into technical education from 2019 has been welcomed as fair funding for colleges. In reality, it is fair funding for some students in some colleges, and will potentially make it more difficult for young people studying academic courses in any type of institution to benefit from the additional investment they so desperately need. 

Looking back at the Sixth Form College Association’s (SFCA) submission to the 2015 spending review, our funding campaign has enjoyed some real successes: the 16-19 funding rate protected, an improved entry process for new sixth form providers, sixth-form colleges entitled to become academies and for those that do, an end to the indefensible VAT learning tax. Of course, there is much more to do – it remains a scandal that funding for sixth-formers is 21 per cent less than the funding for 11- to 16-year-olds, 48 per cent less than the average university tuition fee and 70 per cent less than the average sixth-form fee in the independent sector.

But increasing funding for students on technical courses without a corresponding increase for students pursuing A levels and/or applied general qualifications is as difficult to justify as the gulf in funding between 16-19 education and schools, universities and the independent sector.

Funding disparity 'difficult to justify'

While there is unquestionably a need to strengthen technical education in England, this should not be instead of (or at the expense of) what the Skills Plan defines as "the academic option". This is a self-defeating policy – the high-skilled economy envisaged in the government’s Industrial Strategy will be driven by scientists, technicians, engineers and others that in most cases will have followed the academic path during their sixth-form studies. Aside from the role of applied general qualifications (which are currently under review), there is a view in government that the academic option, perhaps because it is more clearly defined, is operating effectively.

But the SFCA’s latest funding impact survey tells a different story. Two-thirds (66 per cent) of sixth-form colleges have already dropped courses as a result of funding cuts and cost increases, over a third (39 per cent) have dropped courses in modern foreign languages, and the majority (58 per cent) have reduced or removed the extracurricular activities available to students including music and drama, sport and languages.

We also know from research commissioned by the SFCA from the UCL Institute of Education that sixth-formers in England are funded to receive much less tuition time and support than sixth-formers in other leading education systems. Students in places like Shanghai and Singapore receive twice as much tuition time, study more subjects, and in some cases can benefit from a three-year programme of study rather than two. Our sixth-formers are receiving an increasingly impoverished education that hands a competitive advantage to other nations.

Yesterday’s announcement will have no impact on the vast majority of students in sixth-form colleges or schools as they are studying academic qualifications (as are many students in further education colleges). Despite this, ministers will no doubt point to this increased investment when responding to our representations for improved funding ahead of the Autumn Budget. So we must now work even harder to ensure that the government’s vision for post-16 education looks beyond technical education and apprenticeships. The SFCA will continue to make the case for greater investment in mainstream sixth-form education and will engage a broad coalition of organisations to support our campaign. The chancellor should make it a priority to ensure that every 16- to 19-year-old can benefit from a properly funded, high-quality education – whatever path they decide to take.

James Kewin is deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

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James Kewin

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