Labour’s promise to maintain education spending from nursery to 19 year olds and increase it at least by inflation is very welcome. No such protection is on offer from the Conservatives who are promising ‘flat cash’ for pre-16’s and apparently no guarantees of any kind for 16-19. So Labour’s move suggests there may be some education spending ‘blue water’ finding its way between the two major parties.
But before we start cheering in the streets, 16-19 providers will be asking: what does this actually mean for us? Is this really a commitment to adequate levels of funding for the education of this age group?
As outlined so far, this spending guarantee does not protect the rate per learner, so we might still see most of it being used to cater for rising primary rolls and so far we haven’t had any promise of a ring-fence around any part of the education budget, so one sector may need to be raided to pay for growth in others.
The current position is that England’s 16-19 students are the worst funded in education with 18 year-old sixth formers in particular falling off a funding cliff-edge.
To be fair, under this government there has been some progress in levelling the playing field between different 16-19 providers. The post-16 funding system and rate have now been standardised across schools and colleges and college students from low income families are now eligible for free meals on the same basis as their peers in school sixth forms.
But overall, 16-19 learners have been battered by a ‘perfect storm’ of policy and spending decisions which have hit them disproportionately. The coalition government’s spending protection for education does not extend beyond 16 and we have been hit hard; first by cuts to the funding for non-qualification aspects of students’ programmes such as tutorial, enrichment and key skills and then later by the cap on programme size which penalised colleges whose students study larger programmes, such as 4 A-levels.
This year, those colleges which enrol 18 year olds have also seen funding for this age group cut by 17.5% this year; a cruel cut which I call the ‘aspiration tax’ because it hits colleges which offer the most 3-year and second chance opportunities to students who did least well at school and are committed to their success. As well as the ‘aspiration tax’, incorporated colleges have to pay VAT while their competitor schools and academies are exempt. This costs the average sixth form college over £300,000 per year, an inequity which we describe as the ‘learning tax’.
The convergence of a number of all these spending reductions has ended up hitting colleges far more than other sectors and the result is that by 2016/17 the average sixth form college student will attract only £4,128 which is 82% of the average funding for a school or academy sixth form student, 74% of the average funding for an 11-16 year old and 49% of the average funding for a university student. It also represents a mere 16% of the sixth form day fees at a ‘top’ private school such as Westminster. Incidentally, in the private sector it is quite usual for sixth form fees to be higher than for the rest of the school, presumably reflecting the relative cost of the provision. At Westminster there is a +8% sixth form premium compared to the -26% sixth form discount we see in public funding.
So, for Labour’s announcement to be good news for 16-19 year olds, we need to know which of the following possible variants of their plan is most likely for this age group:
1. No protection for 16-19 year olds: This could be very bad news indeed unless the new government also initiates a review of funding rates based on what it expects from each sector. This could lead us towards option 4.
2. No further cuts in the cash rate per learner: This is essentially what we are experiencing this year after a period of unprecedented cuts. Once all these cuts have worked through and inflation takes its toll, it is difficult to see how sixth form providers would be able to provide the minimum programme of study required for 16-19 year olds, let alone the broad and enriching education they need.
3. An inflation-linked increase in the cash rate per learner: This would at least stabilise funding at the current levels and allow providers to survive. There would still be serious inequities in the system, such as massive underfunding of programmes for 18 year olds.
4. Start to move towards greater parity between 16-19 and pre-16 funding: Any new government committed to equitable investment in all young people from nursery to 19 should consider scrapping both the ‘learning tax’ (the VAT inequity between colleges and schools) and the ‘aspiration tax’ (the funding inequity between 18 year-olds and 16/17 year-olds on the same programmes), establish what a fair funding rate would be and start to move towards it.
The same question can also be put to the other parties.
This is a critical phase in the educational and social development of our young citizens and future workers. Good post-16 education should be recognised as a key component of our country’s overall investment strategy for the future. It’s therefore high time that 16-19 education was on the political agenda and we need to see more detail from each major party. The funding, educational opportunities and institutional arrangements which our 16-19 year-olds need should be an election issue and all parties should be put on the spot about how much they intend to invest and what their direction of travel will be.