Sending out an SOS: considering sixth form funding

Funding pressures are impacting sixth form provisions; it’s time to send out an SOS. Marie Cahalane speaks with James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, about the Support Our Sixth-formers (SOS) campaign

Sustained underinvestment, cuts to funding in 2011, 2013, and 2014, as well as increasing on-costs, have had an impact on sixth form provisions. Without action students face further decreases in tuition time, further cuts to courses – particularly in STEM and modern foreign languages – as well as increased class sizes.

The Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) recognises this and, representing schools, colleges and governors, is calling on the government to make the changes needed and protect sixth form education by supporting the Support Our Sixth-formers (SOS) campaign. The campaign brings together school, FE college and grammar school associations, as well as student groups, because, as James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the SFCA, “We were conscious that the challenge of sixth form funding doesn’t just affect sixth form colleges, it affects all sixth form providers – we need to show a united front in the campaign for better funding.”

The campaign makes two simple recommendations to be considered in the autumn Budget:

  • Introduce a £200 per student uplift in funding to improve the education and support offered to sixth form students;
  • Conduct a review of sixth form funding to ensure it is linked to the realistic costs of delivering a rounded, high quality curriculum.

Simple observations

“The challenge that we have is that politicians respond to pressure – particularly pressure from parents and students and they respond to noise,” James says. And this is what the SOS campaign seeks to create – a voice and a platform from which funding and resources can be called for.

The SFCA’s recent report, Support Our Sixth-formers campaign: funding impact survey report, highlights the lack of funding that has been allocated to sixth form. Due to past cuts and increasing on-costs, the report says that ‘Funding for 16 to 19-year olds is now 21% lower than the funding for 11 to 16-year olds.’ James is quick to point that quoting this figure does not undermine the need for funding for 11 to 16 provisions, however, it does beg the question of ‘To what extent has sixth form funding been ‘protected?’

“We don’t believe that the government should be robbing Peter to pay Paul, but we think that both phases – or stages of education – should be properly funded. That’s the big issue here,” James explains. Adding that, “We shouldn’t be competing with schools for funds, we should just be fairly funded.”

The report provides detailed figures, investigating cuts to courses; for example, it reveals that 50% of schools and colleges have dropped courses in modern foreign languages and further that almost a third (34%) of schools and colleges reported they have dropped STEM courses. It also reveals that 72% of schools and colleges strongly disagree or disagree that the amount of 16 to 19 funding that they will be allocated in 2018/19 will be sufficient to provide the support required by students that are educationally or economically disadvantaged.

Simple recommendations

The first recommendation is an increase of £200 per pupil – a modest figure, a short-term aid, intended to ensure that sixth form providers are able to support students’ learning and their individual needs. The campaign estimates that it this ‘uplift’ will cost £244m per year to implement.

This £200 per pupil is not a lot to ask for; especially when you consider – as is outlined in the report – that the government has under-spent the allocated sixth form funding over the past three years – which amounted to £135m in 2014/15, £132m in 2015/16 and £106m in 2016/17. This was an underspend that an all-party group of sixth form providers fought to have recognised by the government.

The sum held back – totalling £373m – could go a long way towards supporting sixth for provisions in time for the 2017/18 academic year, the report suggests. Plus, as James notes: “At a very basic level, if 16-19 education is on its knees the very least that we can expect is the money that the government has set aside for sixth form education to be spent on sixth form education.”

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James tell us why the funding was not given in full to sixth form provisions in these years, explaining that the government annually estimates the number of students expected to part take in 16 to 19 education and sets aside a sum of money based on these figures. However, over the years past three years the government has overestimated the number of pupils and thus overestimated the ‘required’ funding. What the government says is that the money was not then needed, what the SFCA and the SOS campaign say is that this is a technocratic response and vastly irrelevant.

Simple innovations

“What does a rounded sixth form education actually look like?” James asks. This is the question that the SFCA and the SOS campaign hope to find an answer to through their recommended fundamental review of sixth form funding. The aim of such a review, as outlined in the report, is to re-introduce the link between investment levels and the cost of high-quality education. The second question, James says is, “How much does it cost to deliver those?”

“At the moment, we analyse this completely backwards. At the moment, the government cobbles together a funding rate, gives it out to schools and colleges in the 16 to 19 range and says. ‘Do what you can for that!’ Unfortunately, I think what’s happened is that we have now reached a point where ‘Do what you can for that’ means three subjects, no frills, and it makes it very difficult to offer subjects that are less popular – like modern foreign languages.”

A final battle cry

“One of the real frustrations that we have with the government whenever the issue of funding is raised is that they have a series of stock answers that they deploy.

“One of these is that they are investing £500m in technical education; but as we say in the report this doesn’t help the vast majority of students who are not pursuing technical education post-16. So that £500m, that constant refrain, is completely irrelevant,” James says, again calling for the government to consider the delivery of a full and rounded education that accommodates the needs and interests of all students at post-16 level.

“The other thing that we hear a lot from the government is that they have protected the national funding rate at £4000. However, what they don’t say is that they’ve cut funding three times. So, they may be protecting it, but they are protecting it at a lower level – it’s a disingenuous response to create the impression that they have somehow protected sixth form funding.

“Our hope is that, on Wednesday, we get something – we need something,” James asserts, ”In terms of the SOS campaign, we’ve done everything that we can and have made as much noise as we can.”

Read Support Our Sixth-formers campaign: funding impact survey report

Key findings

  • In total, 50% of schools and colleges have dropped courses in modern foreign languages as a result of funding pressures, with A levels in German, French and Spanish the main casualties;
  • Over a third of schools and colleges (34%) have dropped STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) courses;
  • Two thirds of schools and colleges (67%) have reduced student support services or extra-curricular activities – with significant cuts to mental health support, employability skills and careers advice;
  • More than three quarters of schools and colleges (77%) are teaching students in larger class sizes and half (50%) have reduced the delivery hours of individual courses;
  • Two thirds of schools and colleges (66%) have moved from a four subject offer as standard to a three subject offer;
  • Almost three quarters (72%) do not believe the amount of funding they will receive next year will be sufficient to provide the support required by students that are educationally or economically disadvantaged.

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