The perils of post-16 funding cuts

Teacher and SBM unions have long expressed concern about the level of post-16 funding across the country. In this report, Hayley Zimak looks at how we got to this point – and the impact it’s had on students and staff

“We are concerned about the continuing decline in entries to A-level in modern foreign languages, and other ‘minority’ subjects. These statistics reflect the fact that sixth forms and colleges are finding it increasingly difficult to run courses where there are relatively small numbers of students because of severe funding pressures. The level of post-16 funding is woeful, and urgently needs to be addressed; the government must invest more money in post-16 education as a matter of urgency” Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary, ASCL

Cause and effect 

It’s a sad reality that many aspects of the education sector have felt the sting of reduced budgets, frozen grants and suspended funding. Post-16 funding is no exception; in fact, institutions providing sixth form education have experienced the deepest cuts of all, according to James Kewin, deputy chief executive at the Sixth Form Colleges Association.

“In 2011 entitlement funding, which was used to provide tutorials, enrichment activities and additional courses, was reduced from 114 hours per year to 30 hours and sixth form colleges (SFCs) experienced, on average, a 10% reduction in their programme funding as a result. The new 16-19 funding formula, introduced in September 2013, saw the average SFC lose 6% of its funding and the reduction in funding for 18 year olds introduced in 2014 meant a further 1.2% decrease. Some will have lost a third of their funding between 2011 and 2016.”

Roughly £750m was allocated to SFCs last year – an amount that James says is simply not enough. “Ultimately, it’s a political choice; the government can decide how much it invests in each phase of education…sixth form education is being treated as a poor relation, particularly when compared to 11-16 and higher education, which both receive more funding.”

James says that SFCs are at a particular disadvantage for two reasons; they can’t cross-subsidise with the more generous funding that has been available for schools with younger students and they are not reimbursed VAT – which can cost the average SFC more than £320,000 pounds a year.

The Sixth Form Colleges Association had 120 sixth form colleges in 1992; there are currently 91, despite student numbers doubling over the period.

Funding crisis?

However, the ability to juggle and use money meant for younger pupils is a luxury that secondaries will no longer be able to utilise. “Until this year it was at the discretion of the local authorities how they allocated the funding,” Usman Gbajabiamila, policy advisor at ATL explains. “Some were using £13.5m from the dedicated schools’ grant to fund post-16 education in secondaries even though the funding was meant for pre-16 pupils…that discretion has now been removed.”

Last year Hayfield School in Doncaster announced that its sixth form will close in August 2017, citing the impact of funding changes as the reason; its outcomes such as this that continue to concern Julia Harnden, funding specialist at ASCL. “We think that post-16 funding is in crisis. Reforms to align post-16 funding across the board, removing the slightly different funding rates for schools and colleges, have seen a flat rate emerge. Funding has been frozen at £4,000 per student and, while pre-16 funding is protected in the government’s manifesto, post-16 funding isn’t.”

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Julia says that, according to ASCL’s funding policy and the research they’ve conducted, an acceptable level of funding would be one that is at least on par with key stage 4 per pupil funding.  “Our modelling suggests that a key stage 5 rate of around £4,800 can provide a typical academic programme in a school or sixth form college, including a programme of enrichment activities.”

There are 1700 students in an average six form college and 220 students in an average secondary school sixth form.

A lasting impact

As important as the bottom line is, it’s the students who are hit the hardest – and this resonates with James. “There’s been a significant impact on student choice. It’s not just about the exams and the qualifications, it’s about the extra-curricular experience, the kind of thing that provides students with a rounded education, and that’s what’s being lost.

“It impacts on teaching and support staff; we’ve seen a reduction in staff in sixth form colleges which has a knock-on impact on the quality of education we can provide. The government needs to reassess how much is provided because there’s a difference in the education they say young people deserve and the actual amount of money that’s been put aside for that age group.”

Fighting for fairer funding is a slow and laborious process, one that Julia says ASCL continues to lobby for. “We’re raising awareness at every opportunity to make the government understand that class sizes are getting bigger in post-16 and that some courses are being dropped.” And, as the long-awaited national funding formula is delayed by an academic year, she wonders if that will bring some much needed relief to sixth forms. “There’s a sort of irony in post-16 in that the formula works but it’s the total amount of money that’s insufficient. The formula needs to ensure an equitable distribution of the funding so that every child has equal opportunities, no matter where they are in the country.”

James outlines how SFCs have responded to funding cuts:

  • The most common strategy is to reduce all non-pay budgets; 82% of colleges have taken this step – up from 74% last year.
  • 82% have reduced their management structure, a 12% increase on the figure reported last year.
  • 81% have increased class sizes – up from 69% last year.
  • There’s been a 67% reduction in the number of colleges that are attempting to grow student numbers in response to the funding cuts – compared to 74% last year.

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