Aspiration tax for the many, jackpot for the few

Now that colleges have received their funding allocations for next year, we know the full extent of the “aspiration tax” on 18 year olds. At Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc), 472 of our students are over 18 and they will each lose the college about £635 of funding for the 2014/15 academic year amounting to a total cut of around £300,000. This has been “mitigated” by limiting the cut to 2% of the total college budget, leaving a further £119,000 to be cut in the following year, another £252 more per student. This makes NewVIc the hardest hit sixth form college in the country.

I have already written here about how harsh this particular cut is, as it targets those very students who have worked the hardest to progress. They often start from quite low achievement at school or face particular barriers beyond their control. We have shown here that these 3-year students often do very well and many progress to university. Colleges have no way of targeting the cut on these learners as they are on the same courses as their younger classmates and so the hardest hit colleges are those which are the most inclusive and willing to help students take the opportunity to aim high and progress beyond the arbitrary 5 A-C benchmark of success at 16. In short, every student in these colleges will suffer.

When asked about this in parliament, the government minister responsible for colleges, Matthew Hancock blamed the recession and the need to find savings from somewhere:

“…we had to make this change because of the mess left in the public finances.” (Education questions 24/03/14, column 13)

However, in the very same week we received this bad news in our allocation, we also learned of the planned £45million investment in a super-selective new 16-19 free school run by a partnership of the private fee-charging Westminster school and the Harris academy chain. This was widely condemned but robustly defended by another government minister, Lord Nash who described it as:

“…an exciting and innovative project focused on the poorest in society that has never been tried before….giving hundreds of children from low income families the kind of top quality sixth form previously reserved for the better off.”

It is not clear precisely what the Harris Westminster sixth form offers which has not been tried before. What justifies such confident hype, other than being super-selective? No doubt, its cherry-picked students will do very well but will they do better than they would have in London’s excellent range of existing sixth form providers which offer much better value for money? Given that £62million has already been spent on 9 new 16-19 free schools, not all of which are full, it might have been timely to have a pause in new developments to see how well those in the first phase perform.

£45million invested in London’s successful and cost-effective sixth form colleges could have funded the 500 learners proposed for the Harris Westminster sixth form for the next 15 years with several million left over for capital investment to build new facilities in each of the 12 colleges. It could also have created a fund to support gifted and talented students across the capital wherever they study benefiting tens of thousands of aspirational young people. This kind of funding could have genuinely transformed the prospects of young Londoners if decisions about how to invest it had included the very people who have a track record of delivering post-16 success in every part of Greater London.

For those of us trying to provide our students with as much, or more, stretch and challenge next year while making further budget savings, news of this project was evidence that our government seems prepared to invest in a very small number of already successful learners for whom there is no demonstrable shortage of provision at the expense of a very large number of students for whom a bit more investment could make a big difference. In the words of the NUT petition organised in response to this news, it is quite simply evidence of  the wrong priorities.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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