Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector is right to call for investment in Further Education

By Julian Gravatt on

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), Amanda Spielman, has taken the unusual step of writing to the Public Accounts Committee to highlight, amongst other things, the concern about the impact of funding cuts on the college sector. When considered alongside the increased, and much needed, focus on curriculum in the new inspection framework, this shows that she is not afraid to assert the inspectorate’s independence and speak truth to power.

In her letter, HMCI says: “Based on our inspection evidence …the real-term cuts to FE and Skills (FES) funding are affecting the sustainability and quality of FES provision.” She adds that: “My strong view is that the government should use the forthcoming spending review to increase the base rate for 16 to 18 funding.”

Amanda Spielman is right about the impact of cuts and there is no shortage of robust evidence to support her judgement on this. The result of the failure to maintain the value of the FE base rate and the real level of investment in capital for many years is that:

  • Although inspection grades have improved, there are fewer outstanding colleges.
  • Although student outcomes have improved overall, the rate of improvement is starting to slow down, and inspection and FE Commissioner reports often refer to the pace of improvement.
  • Courses are being taught with fewer teaching hours – the current average for a full time 16-18 year old in England is now 15 hours per week compared with over 25 hours a week in most OECD countries.
  • Many colleges have reduced student support services or extra-curricular activities – with cuts to mental health support, employability and careers advice.
  • Colleges are teaching students in larger class sizes at a time when student needs have become increasingly complex and health and childrens’ services are less able to respond.
  • Many colleges have dropped courses in STEM, arts subjects and modern foreign languages as a result of funding pressures.
  • College teachers are being paid about 20% less than teachers in schools with all the implications for recruitment and retention. At the same time, they are being timetabled as intensively as ever, with classes close to or at capacity and extremely well-utilised staff (98% on average).
  • The government has placed new un-costed duties and requirements on the sector since there was last a base rate increase.
  • College finance records show that their financial health has deteriorated over the past 3 years and this is leading to less investment in resources and buildings, for example, in digital infrastructure.

Although colleges have coped admirably with these challenges, making efficiencies and finding imaginative ways to protect front-line teaching, the elastic cannot stretch any further. A recent SFCA survey concluded: “Put simply, even the most efficient colleges will soon start to fall off a cliff without an increase to the funding rate. This will have implications for students and local communities, but also the Exchequer.”

A financially stable FE sector is essential to deliver the government’s policy objectives and to support students to progress to higher levels. For colleges to continue making a positive impact on their local community and local economy, they need to be financially resilient. Many schools have to cross subsidise their sixth forms with the funding intended for younger students. This is not possible in colleges and school leaders are concerned that it is starting to have a negative impact on key stage 3 and 4. While the area review process and subsequent mergers may have increased resilience, this alone will not solve the overall financial deficit the sector is reporting.

Social mobility will be at risk if course hours, student support, employer and university visits, interview coaching, careers advice and wider enrichment activities are cut. Colleges need to be able to invest in people, buildings and equipment in order to deliver on T Levels, the Industrial Strategy, Digital Strategy, level 4 provision to meet the skills gap.

The case has been made and the evidence is clear. The government needs to listen and start to address the concerns.