September’s spending round brought the first increase in core 16-19 funding for a decade – a welcome response to the collective efforts of everyone involved in the Raise the Rate campaign. At the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), we were also pleased that the government responded positively to the case for including A levels and Applied General Qualifications in the £120 million fund for delivering "expensive but crucial subjects".
Taken together, the spending round announcements mean the average sixth-form college and 16-19 academy will see its funding rise by around £400 per student in 2020. Of course, more funding is needed after years of underinvestment, but it is important to give credit where it is due – education secretary Gavin Williamson has secured more investment for sixth-form education in a matter of months than all of his predecessors combined since 2010.
Lib Dem manifesto: Skills wallets and funding
Labour manifesto: A National Education Service and adult education
Conservative manifesto: £3bn for ‘national skills fund’
Welcome commitments on 16-19 education have also been made by other political parties. The Green, Liberal Democrat and Labour manifestos all contain a pledge to also raise the rate. The Greens and Labour have adopted the proposal in the SFCA manifesto for a dedicated capital expansion fund, while the Liberal Democrats have pledged to remove the VAT burden on colleges – even adopting our old campaign slogan to "drop the learning tax".
Election 2019: What sixth-form colleges want
However, as the former governor of New York Mario Cuomo famously put it, politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Can we really believe the promises made by opposition parties, and would a Conservative government build on the promising first steps taken in 2019?
One reason for optimism is that 16-19 is finally being treated as a distinct phase of education by politicians. As recently as the 2017 election, Labour’s manifesto grouped its education plans under four headings: early years, schools, skills and higher education. If asked to pick which of these categories best describes them, most SFCA members would select "none of the above".
The number of specific commitments on sixth-form education from opposition parties should be welcomed, as should the secretary of state’s claim that “the issue of 16-19 education is one close to my heart”. But to really transform 16-19 education in England, politicians will need to provide colleges and schools with a commodity that has been in short supply in recent years – certainty. Take three examples.
Certainty on funding
Will the rate rise to the right level? Will the investment in "expensive but crucial subjects" continue? Will the teachers’ pension grant be available in the future? Under a Conservative government, we will have to wait until a spending review in 2020 for the answers to these and many other related questions, but when combined with one-year funding settlements, the number of known unknowns makes it very difficult to think and plan strategically.
Certainty on curriculum
Will applied general qualifications survive? The current government is – to put in mildly – sceptical about the value of these qualifications. This is partly because they are regarded as a barrier to the expansion of T levels and partly because there is a fundamental lack of understanding about their role and purpose. Again, it is hard to think and plan strategically when a hugely successful group of qualifications that are integral to your curriculum offer face an uncertain future. The other parties have not been drawn on the future of AGQs, and we must wait until the spring for the first stage of the government’s consultation to conclude.
Certainty on expansion
There will be 260,000 more 16- to 19-year-olds participating in full-time education in nine years’ time. With no capital expansion funding for colleges or schools, where are these young people going to be educated? Some SFCA members are already bursting at the seams and are based in areas where the demographic boom will see student numbers rise by 40 per cent. In this context, Labour’s support for a capital expansion fund is very welcome, while the Conservatives focus on "upgrading" the FE estate will do little to cater for the increase in student numbers (particularly if it is only focused on FE colleges).
As much as anything else, the SFCA manifesto is an attempt to encourage political parties to introduce a greater degree of certainty into their plans for 16-19 education. Dialling down the initiative mania and reforming the process for establishing new sixth-form provision would also help institutions to plan for the future in a much more considered and strategic way.
To expect complete certainty about the future would be both unrealistic and undesirable – life would be very dull if everything was mapped out for us. But any party that could provide a guarantee of (improved) funding for at least three years, assure us that AGQs were here to stay, and enable institutions to expand in response to rising student numbers, would certainly get our vote.
James Kewin is deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association