The Sixth Form College Association has published its manifesto for the 2015 general election. It will join the manifestos of many other organisations in politicians’ in-trays, no doubt prompting many warm words but few cast-iron promises. This was evident in the speeches of both our minister, Nick Boles, and his shadow, Kevin Brennan, when they spoke at our AGM on Monday 17th November. Both praised the manifesto but neither was able to make any specific funding commitments to the sector.
Such manifestos can easily be dismissed as the demands of a special interest group. But in this case, the people whose interests we are speaking for are our students; young people aged 16 to 19 who have experienced some of the biggest funding cuts and are now the least resourced full-time students in England. At the AGM, our Deputy Chief Executive, James Kewin, speculated whether this would have been possible if English 16 and 17 year olds had the vote.
These young people deserve a broad and coherent full-time educational experience which prepares them for higher education, employment and citizenship. Is it too much to ask that our system of public education should aim for this and invest in it accordingly?
The SFCA manifesto has 7 recommendations:
1. Recouple AS and A levels
The retrograde decoupling of AS from A level will make the transition to higher level study more difficult and hinder achievement and progression for many young people.
2. Ensure all students can benefit from a full time programme
Current funding levels make it very difficult to provide the full programmes of study which young people need, including qualifications, English and Maths, tutorial, enrichment and work experience.
3. Fund the sixth form curriculum on the basis of actual cost
Three consecutive rounds of major cuts have left full-time students in sixth form colleges the lowest funded in England, even without counting schools’ cross-subsidy of their sixth forms.
4. Give sixth form colleges the same VAT exemption enjoyed by schools and academies
There is no rationale for making sixth form colleges pay VAT when schools and academies are exempt. This single difference costs the average sixth form college £335,000 per year.
5. Fund students with high needs fairly and consistently wherever they study
We need to return to a transparent national system for funding students with high needs in order to ensure they receive a standard entitlement and to reduce complexity and bureaucracy.
6. Allow new sixth form colleges to be established where there is a genuine need
In areas where there is a need for new sixth form places, young people should have the option of a sixth form college. At the moment, only new academies or free schools can be opened. In other areas, excessive new capacity is being created at great cost.
7. Release the collaborative potential of sixth form colleges
Sixth form colleges have a lot to offer their local education systems, but in many cases the national system limits the opportunities for collaboration and innovation.
At our AGM, the minister said he made no apology for spending public money on investing in ‘disruptive’ new post-16 capacity such as 16-18 free schools, even where there is no shortage of places. In response, we make no apology for pointing out that this is happening just as the squeeze on funding for mainstream provision is jeopardising the life chances of many young people.
Sixth form colleges are English education’s great success story. On average, their students achieve higher point scores per student and higher university progression rates. They enrol more disadvantaged students and have lower unit costs than any other public sector providers. They are true engines of social mobility and they deserve the support of every political party which aspires to government in 2015.
Eddie Playfair chairs the Sixth Form College Association (SFCA).
The full manifesto can be read here.