Not so sweet 16 as Osborne turns the screws on colleges

29th October 2010 at 01:00
The fanfare as the Chancellor spared schools from his axe masked the fact that the post-16 sector will have to cope with the raising of the school leaving age - without any extra cash

If schools were the relative winners in the spending review's education settlement, the post-16 sector was very much the loser.

Chancellor George Osborne gloated near the end of his comprehensive spending review announcement on Wednesday that he had "succeeded" in finding more resources for schools and early-years education.

But while he gave with one hand, he took away with the other. Although the full details of how sixth-forms and further education colleges will be affected have yet to be made clear, it is certain that times will be tough for 16-19.

By trying to protect school spending for five- to 16-year-olds, and introducing a pupil premium at the expense of the education maintenance allowance (EMA), the Coalition has revealed where its emphasis lies over the next four years.

While most schools will see their budgets frozen, sixth-forms and FE colleges will be asked to do a lot more with less. Despite failing to back the previous government's raising of the school leaving age, the Coalition has now embraced the policy - but without offering any additional money.

David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum, said the most "worrying" statement for post-16 was the one about reducing "per-unit costs" in the sector - in other words, how much each student will receive.

"If it means an overall reduction of costs to level the playing field between sixth-forms and FE colleges, that is one thing, but if it means driving down costs that would result in some programmes being affected, then that would really worry us," Mr Igoe said. "Placing a cap on what you can offer could really affect some students, who may be able to offer something to the workforce."

He added: "Sixth-forms run on very tight margins - we have class sizes of 20-plus. It is difficult to see where we can make savings without reducing the programmes we offer."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, said FE funding was a prime example of the "winners and losers" in this spending review.

"Post-16 education is the most worrying part of the spending review for education," Mr Hobby said. "It would appear that by scrapping the EMA, the Government is making the point that if education should be compulsory, they should not have to incentivise it."

Removing the EMA was regarded, particularly by FE principals, as one of the hardest cuts to bear from the spending review.

Poorer students are more likely to attend FE colleges than sixth-forms, and the #163;30 a week offered by the EMA could mean the difference between a young person carrying on with their studies or trying to find work.

David Pullein, finance director at Leeds College of Building, said that although it was too early to know where the cuts will lie, losing EMAs will be a huge blow.

"If it goes in the way it has been suggested, it will have a devastating effect," he said. "The EMA has led to a huge rise in the number of 16-18 students taking part in education over the last three to five years.

"It is okay saying the hardest earning will be protected, but you have to ask, where does the cut off lie? There are a number of people who were somewhere in the middle, to whom the #163;30 a week made a huge difference."

He added: "We don't know enough details about what George Osborne's spending review will mean for 16-19, but one thing does look certain and that is we'll have to grow as colleges just to stand still."

For union leaders, the decision to cut post-16 education raises questions about the Government's commitment to increasing social mobility. One of the key pillars of the Coalition's agreement is to close the gap between rich and poor, and to deconstruct the notion that the income of a child's parents should dictate how well that child achieves.

But the decision to tighten the purse strings over FE, while making cuts to higher education and increasing university tuition fees, could lead to the gap widening between the haves and the have-nots.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The removal of EMAs coupled with changes to higher education funding is likely to act as a serious deterrent to some students, and will in no way help the Government's strategy to address social mobility."

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