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'The tough financial outlook for post-16 education barely gets a mention; this must change'

Louise Evans, a senior research fellow at thinktank IPPR, writes: 

The future of education spending has been in the spotlight this week, with the coincidental publication of two thinktank reports. One, a briefing note by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), looked purely at future schools spending, while at IPPR we published a wider report looking at reforming education for those aged 14 to 19. This report included a chapter modelling what upper secondary funding has looked like, could look like and could have been.

The message on five to 15 funding was consistent and striking across both reports. Regardless of whether the plan is to protect the per pupil figure for five to 15-year-olds in flat cash terms, as proposed by the Conservatives, or to protect the whole education budget in real terms, as proposed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the future for schools looks tough.

Both reports predict that schools will see a real-terms cut of about 7 per cent in per pupil funding for five to 15-year-olds by 2019/2020, rising to 8 to 9 per cent if the additional pressures caused by national insurance and teacher pensions are factored in and with IFS predicting this could rise to 12 per cent if the Office for Budget Responsibility’s assumption for likely growth in public sector earnings are also taken into account.

The story that has been missed in the coverage so far is the potential for a significantly different impact on the 16 to 18 budget depending on different parties’ plans. This relates to the whole thrust of the IPPR report which is that there is a danger that post-16 education is still perceived as an “add-on” or second order priority. If we are going to make upper secondary education truly successful in England then we need to think coherently about how the system operates across the whole 14 to 19 age range. That should include striving for more parity and coherence between pre and post-16 funding.

The 16 to18 budget has not been protected under this government and has therefore already seen a cut in nominal terms of about 9 per cent over the last five years, equating to £700m. Over the next Parliament, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have committed to protecting the whole education budget, including the existing 16 to 18 budget, in real terms. The Conservatives appear to be leaving post-16 funding free from any protection, out to weather the cold.

We predict that the impact of these different approaches is significant. While in real terms the Labour and Lib Dem plan would see the £6.9bn budget frozen, our analysis predicts that the Conservatives’ plan would lead to a real terms cut to the 16 to 18 budget of 13.4 per cent.

Unfortunately, unlike with 5 to 15-year-olds, there are less clear pupil projections for 16 to 18-year-olds so deriving the impact on per pupil funding is difficult. While the Association of Colleges (AoC) have predicted a slight drop in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds in the country in the next few years, the raising of the participation age should, hopefully, also equate to more of this age group participating in education. Whatever the exact number of pupils, the difference in the two scenarios is significant. We predict that there would be nearly one £1bn less in the 16 to 18 budget in 2019/20 if it is not included in any ringfence, compared to if the budget is protected.

Achieving a stronger, more coherent upper secondary system is, of course, not going to be achieved solely through ensuring more coherence in pre- and post-16 funding. The IPPR concludes that a clearer vision for the whole phase is needed, with a focus on universally broad, stretching programmes of study for all students over a four-year period. Such a vision needs to be underpinned by more coherence in the institutional landscape, accountability and curriculum, alongside funding.

If raising the participation age is really going to be seized as an opportunity to develop a stronger upper secondary phase, however, then post-16 education must stop being seen as the second order issue. The tough financial picture that is being faced by institutions with 16 to 18-year-olds rarely gets sufficient attention – that needs to change.

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