Sixth form hopes for 2018.

I’ve been posting new year’s wishes for sixth form education since January 2015. This started with 5 ‘modest, realistic and realisable’ hopes. By 2016 the list had been cut to 4 and was then further reduced to 3 a year later.

In summary, the ‘resolutions’ for 2017 were:

1. To describe our educational aspirations for 16-19 year olds and try not to be limited by narrow conceptions of ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ education.

If anything, 2017 has seen us go backwards nationally in this respect, with a widening gulf between ‘skills’ and technical education policies and the ‘academic’ route consisting of reformed linear A-levels.

2. To try to find common ground between all 16-19 providers and make a strong case for the properly resourced high quality sixth form education that all young people deserve.

As a sector, we did this effectively this year, thanks to our representative organisations, the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) who worked to build new alliances and lobbied hard for an immediate and modest injection of £200 per full-time student pending the promised review of post-16 funding. MPs from all parties seem to accept the case that 16-19 education is now seriously underfunded. However, this political support did not translate into any significant spending commitment in the Autumn Spending Review and we will continue to fall further behind schools and universities in terms of the resources we invest in our students at this important stage. The development of T-levels is just beginning and may lead to some additional resource – but only for some learners. The new funding for additional in levels 3 Maths students announced by the chancellor in November has yet to be explained and it is by no means clear that it will actually result in the desired outcome.

3. To start planning for a coherent, comprehensive 16-19 system capable of offering choice and entitlement to a broad and challenging education for all young people.

The area reviews are a fading memory and although many colleges have merged, local coherence remains a distant prospect while rampant market madness continues. The lack of any local area planning or co-ordination means that ‘choice and diversity’ often means ‘fewer options and greater selection’ in practice.

So, what can we reasonably work for in 2018?

This year I am whittling my own resolutions down to just two:

1. Continue to make the case for investment in 16-19 education and a review of post-16 funding.

It’s disappointing that post-16 education has not yet found its place at the heart of social policy and it seems unlikely that the current government will start reinvesting in Further Education despite its evident economic benefits and transformative power. The best we can hope for may be some targeted new investment via T-levels and this comes at the price of a deeper academic/vocational divide and will do little to advance broad general educational aims for this age group.

In the short term, even £100 per learner on the national £4,000 rate would be welcome. Such a sum would amount to less than the annual Departmental underspend on 16-19 education, effectively loose change down the back of the sofa, but it would make a real difference to colleges which are having to make impossible choices between different cuts, all of which would be damaging to students.

In the medium term, we might hope that a genuine and objective review of post-16 funding could lead to some rebalancing of resources between learners in different phases and on different programmes. However, government FE and HE policy seems to point in the opposite direction, with more differential funding driven by economic imperatives rather than a universal educational entitlement.

In the longer term, we can take some comfort from the fact that changed priorities at the national level often follow a few years after the grassroots campaigning making the case for such change. We have no choice but to fight our corner and we owe it to our future students to keep making the case.

This rather gloomy prognosis leads me to my second resolution, which also requires planning for the future without any expectation of short term gain:

2. Start developing plans for 16-19 education as part of a National Education Service.

The idea of a National Education Service (NES) is to mobilise all our publicly funded educational resources to provide the best possible opportunities for all our people. It represents a departure from the marketised, education-as-a-commodity which we have learned to live with. It’s what many European countries take for granted and is a perfectly realistic aspiration. It has emerged from the Labour Party but has the potential to attract cross-party support in the way the NHS has and to become the common-sense of a new generation.

So far, the NES concept has mainly been linked with spending commitments such as free university tuition and more investment in early years education. Clearly, identifying and prioritising resources is essential but a successful NES will also require new ideas for allocating existing resources, new structures and new ways of doing things to support the development of a new kind of education service.

We need to take this idea seriously and help flesh out the detail and articulate what form post-16 education might take in a new NES. This work needs to begin now and it might not bear fruit until 2022.

In conclusion:

My prediction for 2018 is that the funding context for our work will not improve and we will all have some very difficult decisions to make. Our full-time students will continue to be the worst funded in the whole system and to receive fewer hours of teaching and a narrower curriculum than their peers in most developed countries. We need to continue to hold to our educational values, provide the best service we can and collaborate more where this is possible. I think our promotional, campaigning and policy development work needs to be focused on the type of medium and longer-term goals outlined above and I wouldn’t expect any quick wins in 2018.

However, with the right kind of work in the next year or two we could lay the foundations for a renaissance in public service post-16 and adult education and that is a prize worth working for.

Post-16 funding:

Life in the sixth form funding canyon (October 2017)

Previous New Year hopes:

Sixth form resolutions for 2017 (January 2017)

New Year wishes for sixth form education in 2016 (January 2016)

5 New Year wishes for post-16 education (January 2015)

A National Education Service:

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)

For a National Education Service (July 2015)

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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