'Time is running out for Hinds on college funding'

After a disappointing Budget for colleges, the 2019 spending review is a 'must-win game' for colleges, says James Kewin

James Kewin

Spending review a must-win game for colleges

For those of us involved in 16-18 education, Budget day increasingly resembles transfer deadline day in the Premier League. The owner of a club (let’s call him Spreadsheet Phil), one that is in desperate need of additional investment, is urged by fans to loosen the purse strings as the deadline approaches.

On the day itself, the best he can do is point to investments made several transfer windows ago, or reassert his faith in fringe academy players that may be ready to make their debut in a couple of years’ time. With each passing year, the club falls further and further behind its competitors, particularly those in Europe.

It’s easy to blame the owner, but he has a broad range of other interests and will never be able to keep everyone happy. Crucially, he will only stump up the cash if the manager asks for it – and back in the world of 16-18 education, that is what needs to happen over the next few months.

Time to go further

In public, at least, there has been little to distinguish Damian Hinds’ position on sixth-form funding from that adopted by the chancellor. Although we have not yet seen the secretary of state conducting Harry Redknapp-style interviews from his car window outside Sanctuary Buildings (“The advanced maths premium? T’riffic!”) he has appeared content with the current policy of limiting new investment to T levels and small uplifts attached to particular subjects.

Behind the scenes, the picture is slightly different and the Department for Education is taking forward a project to review FE funding, which is very welcome. The secretary of state has always been a great supporter of Alton College in his constituency and he clearly understands the pressures on 16-18 funding. But with a high-stakes spending review looming, the secretary of state and his department must go further.

This does not require the sort of very public lobbying adopted (with some success, it appeared yesterday) by defence secretary Gavin Williamson, but it does mean that plans to increase 16-18 funding must be put front and centre of the department’s spending review bid. Fortunately, the Raise the Rate campaign provides a readymade set of recommendations, backed by robust research that can be used to make a compelling case to HM Treasury.

Budget a 'wake-up call'

Research from London Economics has shown that an increase in funding of at least £760 per student is required to continue providing a high-quality education to young people. Only a significant increase in the national funding rate for all 16- to 18-year-olds will make it possible for the government to meet its objectives for a strong post-Brexit economy and a socially mobile, highly educated workforce. Limiting new funding to the small minority of students that pursue technical courses, or attempting to incentivise the uptake of maths courses, will barely make a dent in this ambition.

There is no shortage of evidence that funding for sixth-form students needs to be increased – what is lacking is the political will to make it happen. The Raise the Rate campaign provides a simple, evidence-based message that schools and colleges can use to generate lots of noise in order to influence decision makers. But our immediate priority must be to convince the secretary of state to join us in making this case – and making it emphatically – to HM Treasury.

Yesterday’s Budget was never going to provide the fundamental shift in sixth-form funding that is so desperately required (and colleges are even unlikely to see any of the cash set aside for #LittleExtras in schools). But it should act as a wake-up call to everyone with an interest in sixth-form education. We cannot afford to be ignored in next year’s spending review – it is very much a must-win game and one we can only win with the secretary of state’s wholehearted support. 

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

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James Kewin

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