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Have we reached the tipping point?

03 February 2015

The announcement by the Prime Minister yesterday that if the Conservatives were elected, funding for schools would remain flat in the next Parliament may have been intended to be reassuring, but for the nation’s 16 to 18-year-olds and those that provide them with vital preparation for the world of work or higher education, it was the complete opposite. The announcement did nothing more than entrench the current inequalities; 16 to 18-year-olds receive 22% less funding per student than 11 to 16-year-olds; 37% if they are unfortunate enough to require three years to complete their studies. This latter group has grown over the last five years because, while 11 to 16-year-old school funding has been protected, for 16 to 18-year-olds it has not. Currently colleges and schools educating 16 to 18-year-olds receive about £4,000 per young person per year whilst the amount allocated to each 11-16 year old is more than £5,000. The danger in protecting only 11 to 16-year-old funding in the next Parliament is that the sum for the older age group will continue to fall; somewhere between the current £4,000 and £0, it must become impossible to deliver quality education to a young person. My judgement is we are perilously close to – or have already reached - that tipping point. Whilst schools may be able to continue to cross-subsidise their 16 to 18-year-olds from the protected funding for 11 to 16-year-olds, the same is not true for sixth form and further education colleges. The argument that further education colleges can use funding from their adult budget in a similar way is undermined by the fact that adult funding has also fallen by 35% in the last five years. Moreover, in cross-subsiding 16-18 provision, schools must inevitably reduce the unit to funding ratio for the younger age groups and risk standards falling for them as well. The argument put forward by ministers for the reduction in funding for 16 to 18-year-olds is most often that investment in earlier years provides better returns in terms of student achievement. Despite asking for sight of the evidence on several occasions we have yet to receive substantive proof of this assertion which seems close to achieving the status of an urban myth. Interestingly, in independent schools the very opposite happens with funding rising by an average of 5% for 16 to 18-year-olds compared to 11 to 16-year-olds. More substantively, if the chain of investment in a young person’s development is broken, we risk losing the benefit of all the earlier investment and entrenching the social inequalities and disadvantages that this Government and all the opposition parties say that they want to remove. So what to do? First we need what the Lib Dems have called a ‘cradle to college’ ringfence for education spending and then within that ringfence we need a once in a generation review to determine how money is best spent at each age and stage of education and what can reasonably be expected of colleges and schools in the context of the resources available. It will be interesting to see what Labour say, given their interest in increasing standards in 16-18 education and in technical and vocational education.