How much is a moral argument worth?
I don’t envy the Chancellor in the weeks leading up his Budget speech on 22nd November. I’ve experienced what it is like from a Departmental perspective in the run-up to a Budget: enormous efforts to construct arguments, collate and present evidence; work with Ministers to understand the politics (whilst staying politically neutral); and, the fraught relationships between Department and Treasury officials. It’s a multi-lateral negotiation process which is immensely complex and it usually goes to the wire. In fact the last Budget – March of this year – was very unusual because Treasury told me about the additional £500m investment in T Levels 5 days before it was announced. Whilst I will definitely have my phone on this year, I am pretty certain that normal practice will prevail this year and I’ll be hoping for some positive news to come out of the hat as a big surprise. But not expecting. The Chancellor has some big challenges to face up to across Government. Within the education world, schools will still be making the case for more funding, with a strong political lobby backed up by parents. Universities will also be fighting hard to secure their income (more than they have really had to for a long while), whilst the election has shown how important it is for all parties to court young people and in particular university students. All have merit and I am sure that all will be considered carefully. For colleges, we always have to fight that bit harder – we don’t have the same powerful advocates nor the political clout of HE and schools. We have not built up the political capital to make the impact I would like us to have. One of my ambitions is for AoC to take a leadership role in building a much stronger and vocal group of advocates for what colleges do. The voice of employers and students need to be mobilised more if we are to really be listened to, and we need to act collectively and with energy much more than we do now. That, though, will not be developed enough for this year, so we have been active in making the case directly and through backbench MPs, working with the schools sector which faces the same funding challenges for 16-19 year-olds. The enormous shame of this is that it is college students and employers who are missing out - their life chances and their successes are being hampered by the lack of fair and full investment. Take young people – in their GCSE year the basic funding for teaching and support is set to rise to £4,800 per year. For completely inexplicable reasons, the following year it drops to £4,000 which pales against the funding invested in young people in all of our competitor nations. This results in only 14 – 15 hours a week of teaching and support, compared with 28-30 in many countries. We have argued for an immediate £200 per student more each year at a total cost of around £200m. I can imagine Treasury officials will be calculating the economic return on this potential investment and the politicians will do the same but with the added perspective of political return as well as economic. Sadly, the results of those calculations, in the short term, probably look less compelling than other areas of public policy – just try to weigh up the political return of investment in housing, care, NHS, tax breaks or transport against more hours to support for young people. On the economic return on investment, participation numbers and results for young people look ok overall so that’s no burning platform. But this is where the moral argument and the longer term ambition come in. A Government truly committed to ‘a country that works for everyone’ will be taking a long and serious look at how young people are supported in the difficult transition from childhood and full-time education into working life. Any review would question why we seem to believe that our young people can cope with around half the hours of support compared with other similar countries. It’s not so much of a problem for young people from better-off households, with strong social capital within their family and friends; it bites much more for those from households with lower educational achievement, with fewer helpful networks, with less money to spend on tutors and ‘leisure enrichment’ (travel, museums etc). It works even less well for young people who have no family support; for this group, colleges become the lifeline and often the last chance for successfully navigating into working life. And here’s the rub – the funding cuts bite most for these young people, because colleges have less resource to provide support, both in terms of staff time and bursary money. So, I’m hoping that the Chancellor gets to see the evidence we have provided and can understand the moral issues. Even better if he can appreciate that investing in this critical phase of life will pay dividends in the long term for our society and for our economy. We’ll keep on making the case because this matters so much for the young people who lack the voice and who need advocates for their interests. I just hope that the moral and long term arguments can out-weigh the short term and political imperatives. We will find out on the 22nd November.