Life in the sixth form funding canyon

The chancellor is currently pondering his priorities for the forthcoming autumn statement on public spending and given the critical state of our public services there are plenty of worthy calls on resources.

Without minimising the case for spending more on health, housing, social care and benefits, it’s also worth reminding the chancellor of the pressing case for investing in the education of the country’s 16-19-year olds. In fact, this is a case which the government itself seems to have accepted by agreeing to review the whole 16-19 funding system.

What is our case in summary? The average sixth form rate per learner is 20% below that for 11-16-year olds in schools and 47% below the average university tuition fee. 16-19 education in England finds itself at the bottom of a funding ‘Grand Canyon’ with better funded school education on one side and Higher Education on the other with no rational explanation of why this vital phase of education should be so poorly resourced

The government will claim that it has held the base 16-18 funding rate at a steady £4,000 for several years, implying ‘flat cash’ for sixth forms in schools and colleges. The value of ‘flat cash’ is of course eroded every year by the rate of inflation because a pound buys you progressively less and less.

But from our position at the bottom of this funding canyon, even this basic ‘flat cash’ story doesn’t correspond to our experience. Whilst it is true that the basic rate for 16 and 17-year olds hasn’t been cut since 2013/14, we have in fact lost much funding in cash terms.

In our college, we have seen:

  • £226 cut per student for disadvantage funding between 2016 and 2018. This was a result of the re-basing of the Index of Multiple Disadvantage which took millions of pounds out of areas like Newham despite our borough having one of the highest level of child poverty in the country.
  • £164 cut per student overall caused by the 17.5% funding cut for all 18-year-old students (the ‘aspiration tax’) this amounted to a cut of £850 per 18-year-old for no justifiable reason. This was an impossible cut to pass on to 18-year olds and penalised us for having lots of students who have done the right thing and worked hard to progress from level 1 and 2 to advanced level. This has created a ‘canyon within a canyon’ for colleges which are comprehensive and have high rates of internal progression.

It’s clear therefore that what we have experienced over the last 4 years is far from ‘flat cash’.

We can add to this:

  • £380 reduction per student for unfunded cost increases over the last 4 years. These arise mainly from staff costs increases: national insurance and pension increases and pay rises as well as general inflation.

This means that over the last 4 years we have suffered a real-terms cut of over 13%. in what we can spend per student, compounding the 27% real terms cut colleges experienced between 2009 and 2015. The canyon just keeps getting deeper.

To add insult to injury, the Department for Education chose to underspend its 16-18 budget nationally 3 years in a row totalling £212 per student between 2014 and 2016.

If we compare ourselves to schools, we also know that we have to spend:

  • Roughly £200 per student on VAT from which schools are exempt.

In our area, we also know that one of our main competitors benefits from an additional annual contribution of around £1,200 per student from HSBC bank and another has enjoyed substantial capital and other in-kind support from our local council.

We are therefore backing the “Support our sixth formers” campaign led by our associations; AoC and SFCA, working with other education bodies to make the case for increased investment in England’s sixth formers.  We are calling for an immediate increase of £200 in the funding per learner pending a review of post-16 funding.

This modest investment clearly wouldn’t restore all the cuts we’ve faced in recent years but it would allow for some increase in teaching time. We would aim to provide ‘something for something’ and would want to take a small step towards the broader and richer curriculum our students deserve. Starting from this move towards parity with either school or university funding, we could then engage in a dialogue with government about the kind of entitlement we want for all our 16-19-year olds.

The £200 uplift per student would cost around £244million – a sum which is smaller than the total government underspend on 16-19 funding (£373million over 3 years). Given the colossal sums which the chancellor is working with and the promises already made to universities and schools, here is one relatively low-cost investment which would make a big difference to a sector which, despite everything, continues to transform lives.

See also:

Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

Investing in 16-19 education (February 2015)

Post-16 funding: making the wrong choices (April 2014)

Aspiration tax for the many, jackpot for the few (April 2014)

Drop the aspiration tax (January 2014)

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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