I agree with quite a lot of what Michael Gove says about the purpose of education and I like his championing of egalitarian aims. I welcome the fact that he has moved the Conservative party away from selection pre-16. I also like his strong commitment to a broad, liberal education for all and his rejection of academic/vocational binary thinking.
In the post-16 sector where I work, he has levelled and equalised funding for students aged 16-18 wherever they study and extended the entitlement to free school meals to college students. This has not addressed the funding gap with schools or made up for the deep cuts in student financial support but they are moves in the right direction.
However, in the post-16 sector his failure to protect funding rates and his zeal for promoting new providers risk undermining all his worthy objectives and are doing real harm to established and successful sixth form colleges with an apparent disregard for their contribution. Sixth form colleges are entirely outside the 5-16 funding ring-fence and as a result they have been hit by over £100m in cuts over the last 3 years with more to come.
Next year, my college will lose over £300,000 plus a further £120,000 the following year simply because of the number of 18 year olds we enrol. These are ambitious and hard-working young people “doing the right thing”. Because of their starting point, they need an extra year to achieve their goals and many of them will progress to university. As a result we are being charged an “aspiration tax” of nearly 3% of our budget.
At the same time the government has found £45m for a new Westminster-Harris 16-19 free school in London for around 600 students. This is the latest in a series of new 16-19 free-schools and academy sixth forms. At a time of financial restraint, the government is pouring resources into opening new post-16 providers, many of which then under-recruit because they are entering a crowded market. What is the evidence of demand for these new institutions? What will they offer which is distinctively better? Each new provider seems to be more selective than the last and each adds to the frantic competition for well-qualified 16 year olds which we all now have to engage in.
The Department for Education heaps praise on its new creations and trumpets their every success. When a highly selective 16-19 free school in our area announced that 100 of their students had at least one Russell group university offer, this was deemed worthy of national press coverage and DfE cheerleading. What went unreported was the comparable figures for our comprehensive sixth form college serving the same area: 162 this year and 137 last year.
There is an alternative; one based on success and collaboration. Invested wisely and with the involvement of existing providers, £45m could have a transformative effect on thousands of 16-19 year olds across London. The capital’s 12 sixth form colleges offer an unmatched range of courses, great value for money and have an excellent record of success and progression to university for students of all backgrounds and prior achievement. We also know how to innovate and experiment.
£45m could have funded at least 50 extra places in each college for over 10 years, helped build excellent new facilities for all students and created a city-wide network to support gifted and talented students in sixth forms across the capital working with our partner universities and employers.
Our public institutions are precious social assets and we neglect or discard them at our peril. Sixth form colleges may not have been invented by this government but we are delivering its objectives of high achievement, social mobility and social cohesion. Our enduring values have been shaped over many years with the support of our communities and we are keen to contribute to system-wide improvement.
We all know times are hard; all the more reason to invest public money wisely. So perhaps it’s time for a conservative minister to remember the value of conserving and show more confidence in tried and tested public provision by building on the best of our existing institutions.