Colleges ready to reign in the recession as sixth forms grow fat on funding

11th September 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Ian Pryce

The college sector produces successful A-level students at a fraction of the cost of school sixth forms. We contribute very significantly to our investment in buildings and equipment when schools do not. We return our financial surpluses to our students and communities rather than see them transferred to private shareholders. We deliver high-quality education to about 10 per cent of higher education students on a cost base significantly lower than a university.

On top of that we have driven up participation and student success rates. We have led the development of meaningful 14-16 vocational education, improving the learning experience of thousands of school pupils each year. Barnfield College has shown how the application of the college approach to education can transform secondary school results, immediately and significantly. If our own experience is typical, we act as magnets for those who are made redundant and want to improve their immediate employment prospects.

We go where others fear to tread - not for us the safe-haven equivalent of accrediting the footballing skills of a fully formed Cristiano Ronaldo, we have the courage to foster and develop the next generation of top performers. Gang culture may flourish in some parts of London but rarely intrudes inside the local colleges, while institutions in Northern Ireland are generally regarded as nonsectarian. We are model cohesive communities because of our passion for diversity and equality.

In short, colleges are perfectly placed to help Government in times of economic difficulty. Recessions bring a ruthless focus on cost efficiency, they put a premium on gaining real skills, and they see a rise in community tension and extreme politics. Our unique strengths mean we have an unarguable case to be the supplier of choice, particularly on cost- efficiency grounds, taking an ever larger share of whatever funding is made available.

Yet the painful truth seems to be that we are intent on throwing away our competitive advantage by seeking parity of funding with school sixth forms when there are far more appropriate claims for better treatment.

Governments are responsible for determining policy at a strategic level and then making sure those policies are adequately resourced. Colleges should seek to influence, but we don't decide.

When it comes to resources, Government should look for the most cost- effective way of delivering its policies. In theory, it should pay no more than is absolutely necessary to get the job done. To do otherwise is to be profligate with the taxpayers' money.

At present, school sixth forms benefit from a higher level of funding than colleges. The gap has narrowed very little in 15 years, so it is reasonable to assume the gap is either deliberate or necessary. It might feel unjust, but is there really a moral case for parity of funding?

I have always been perplexed that Government believes there is a place for school sixth forms, particularly in urban areas, but it clearly does. It is government policy. To me, it is self-evident that the school sixth-form model is financially inefficient, but if that is the policy then it will necessarily require greater resource.

School heads are encumbered with teaching contracts that would make even a Royal Mail shop steward blush. Who would want to be constrained by an extensive list of tasks a teacher can simply refuse to undertake, or rules that prescribe a relatively low number of attendance hours each year? Our autonomy allows us to be more productive and should be cherished.

Similarly, there seems to be little evidence that colleges are unable to sustain 16-18 provision at current funding levels. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is colleges with high levels of adult and employer-led work that seem to be suffering more.

We should argue that the policy of encouraging school sixth forms is wrong on provable cost and quality grounds, and stop arguing for more resource when it is our cost-efficiency that makes the policy questionable.

If Government says it is in favour of choice but that it aspires to funding equality, we should argue that funding for schools should be cut to our level and that all new sixth forms should be funded on the college model. This will squeeze out inefficient, low-quality school sixth forms and make new ones a much harder proposition. We would be well placed to take up the slack and gain market share, while the taxpayer gains from our efficiency.

In other areas we could be arguing for special treatment the other way. Colleges are not "providers" - every principal must get angry when that word is used. We are strategic partners and mass educators with strong community roots.

Our student mix is generally more challenging and we do more skills development than accreditation, and these things cost a lot more than any funding methodology can cope with properly. Colleges should, therefore, be paid at a higher level than other classes of deliverer that do not act as strategic partners. We deal with far more learners, a much wider and deeper curriculum, and focus far less on accreditation, important though it is. Silo funding doesn't allow this inter-dependent variety of provision to be properly resourced, and we need to show how existing funding should be redistributed in our favour to have greater impact.

If this was our unified cry we could aspire to become something far more than "providers". Personally, I never had a problem with our old "Cinderella" label. Cinders was recognised by those in the know as highly productive, hard working and cheap, even if she was poorly treated. Throw in some innovative PR courtesy of a fairy godmother and she ended up handsomely and royally rewarded.

This is where a strong, focused promotion of our cost-efficiency and unique strengths could give us an entirely new label, particularly for general further education colleges - with the resources to back it up. We should argue for an uneven playing field.

Tesco and ASDA offer a world-class range of great value products to millions of happy customers, just as colleges do. Do we call them "general" retailers? No, they attract the name "super" markets. If we pledge to be the taxpayers' best friend in tough times by taking only what we need, and Government's friend in taking on the most difficult educational challenges, then surely the era of the Supercollege is not far away.

  • Ian Pryce, Principal of Bedford College, a supporter of the Association of Colleges and a founder member of the 157 Group.

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