Ahead of the government’s spending review it is widely expected that FE provision – other than the flagship apprenticeship programme – will face significant funding cuts.
But major new research shared with TES, which for the first time makes use of a decade’s worth of official data on qualifications and their subsequent economic impact, suggests that such a move could leave many of the most disadvantaged learners with little opportunity of finding employment or progressing to university.
Cutting level 2 FE provision even “risks blocking the pipeline of potential apprentices, and threatens the government’s targets for apprenticeship numbers”, according to Professor Peter Urwin, director of the University of Westminster’s Centre for Employment Research (see panel, opposite).
His team of researchers from the university and the Fischer Family Trust were given unprecedented access to data from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which has been matched with information on earnings from HM Revenue and Customs, and benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions.
In September, TES revealed that the research demonstrated the benefits of low-level qualifications were greater than previously thought (bit.ly/LowLevelQualBenefits).
The researchers’ latest findings show that, among the most disadvantaged students who are eligible for free school meals, 13 per cent go on to achieve a level 3 qualification in FE. This compares with just 8 per cent who do so at school. For this group, FE is “the most important route to achievement”, the report concludes.
In addition, the research identified 308,000 individuals – 16 per cent of the overall cohort – who achieved level 3 qualifications within the FE sector en route to HE, highlighting the role played by the sector in helping young people progress to higher study.
“It is not an exaggeration to suggest that FE’s ability to get many of these individuals into university, in terms of productivity, is transformational,” Professor Urwin said.
“We would argue that further cuts to FE funding may have the largest negative impacts on productivity than proposed cuts in any other area of spending.”
The research also highlights the “second chance” that FE offers, with 71 per cent of the most disadvantaged group of learners studying in the sector between 16 and 18. In addition, almost half of students who leave school with no qualifications at level 2 go on to study in FE by the age of 18. And 50 per cent of learners who start apprenticeships have previously taken another qualification in the FE sector.
The report states: “Without FE, those leaving school with either no qualifications, or close to no qualifications, have little chance of securing productive activity in the labour market.”
The findings raise major questions about how colleges and providers will continue to offer this lifeline in the face of further cuts.
Cambridge Regional College’s 16-18 budget has been slashed by £5 million over the past three years. Principal Anne Constantine said that colleges were already “finding their financial situation very difficult to manage”, and many “will not survive further cuts”.
“I fear for the 16- and 17-year-olds with few educational achievements behind them and weak financial or family support, for whom an FE college has been a life support until now,” she added.
“Will they be offered an apprenticeship with a good employer and a high-quality training provider? Probably not.
“The government should not underestimate the social and economic impact of the work that FE does. If it pushes the sector further into deficit by more cuts this autumn before it has created alternatives, it will be paying the price in future years.”
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said its members taught “valuable employability skills”, as well as strengthening both the regional and national economies.
Sue Pember, policy director for adult and community learning body Holex, said the research demonstrated that it was “vital” for government to support level 2 and basic skills provision. “We still have 40 per cent of 16-year-olds not achieving five GCSEs, and we still have a legacy workforce where one in five have poor basic skills,” she added.
“Both of these groups often join a course demoralised and lacking in confidence, and it is the level 2 programme that helps to turn their lives around.”
‘Social mobility is at risk’
“In contrast to other areas of post-compulsory education, FE caters to higher proportions of individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds,” writes Professor Peter Urwin, pictured.
“For pupils born into acute social disadvantage, FE (including sixth-form colleges) is the most important route to achievement of level 3 by age 18.
“Governments wishing to widen participation in HE should consider the potentially damaging impact that FE funding cuts may have on one of the most important routes to HE for disadvantaged learners.
“Interventions in early years education are essential. However, the intergenerational transfer of negative educational attitudes is hard to escape before the age of 15. From the age of 16 many young people realise the impact of prior educational decisions, and FE provides them with a second chance. Cuts to FE are likely to harm social mobility in England.”