Schools on brink as ‘cliff edge’ funding drop looms

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As 16 to 19 funding continues to free-fall, ministers are urged to act to protect schools from a ‘perfect storm’ of budget pressures and increasing costs. Pete Henshaw reports.

Ministers have again been warned about the devastation that the looming “cliff edge fall” in funding for 16 to 19 education is likely to have.

It comes as a number of schools have revealed to SecEd this week just how much they are having to cut from their overall school budgets in order to survive.

This newspaper has been told of budget reductions ranging from £150,000 to £200,000 a year, with a number of headteachers reporting severe problems post-16 that are resulting in a curtailing of curriculum provision and significant staffing reductions.

There has been deep concern in the sector for some time after the coalition government’s decision to “protect” 11 to 16 education funding in 2010 left the 16 to 19 budget vulnerable to wider austerity measures. A move to a system of per-student rather than per-qualification funding post-16 has left many specialist or expensive courses vulnerable.

The overall result is that per-student funding post-16 has dropped by as much as 20 per cent in some areas in the last four years. Currently, the typical funding is around £4,500 per student aged 16 and 17 (less for those aged 18/19). This compares to funding of £4,645 per post-16 student in 2011/12 and is significantly less than the median of more than £5,600 per student at 11 to 16.

However, the post-16 problem is now coming to a head as four years of transitional protections come to an end in 2015/16 and 2016/17. This is on top of planned  hikes in employees’ pension and National Insurance contributions, meaning schools are facing a four per cent increase in costs too.

One education funding expert described the situation this week as a “perfect storm” facing schools.

Education secretary Michael Gove was warned about the situation last year in letter sent jointly by six professional associations, including the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the Sixth Form Colleges Association.

A follow-up letter in April this year stated: “The continuing and rapid decline in funding has … continued and the funding dip has been exacerbated. The adverse consequences of which we warned are now upon us. Minority courses are being cut, enrichment and tutorial activities are pared to the minimum, and much post-16 provision is tripped to the bare bones.”

Another letter sent on Friday (June 20), followed a recent  meeting between the six organisations and Mr Gove and called for the Department for Education (DfE) to at least hold post-16 funding levels at their current value into 2016/17 and to take account of rises in the pension and NI contributions.

The letter states: “Holding funding at current levels and sustaining ‘formula protection funding’ will avoid a potential cliff edge fall in funding in 2016/17. The looming ... fall in funding would jeopardise the financial viability of many schools and colleges and in the process threaten the life chances of very many young people.” 

The letter also calls on the DfE to carry out a review to “determine the resources needed to provide good and financially viable 16 to 19 education”.

It came as SecEd this week spoke to a number of headteachers about the extent of the budget pressures being faced.

One leader reported having to find £180,000 in savings next year across the board, with three A level subjects being cut and larger groups planned post-16. A second said they were balancing budgets for the moment but that they faced “crash and burn in 2016”. Another school said it was facing a five per cent reduction in post-16 funding and has had to cut more than £200,000 from its overall budget.

The head of one 1,600-pupil school, including a 350-strong 6th form, said he was facing a £200,000 funding reduction. He told SecEd “We have had to narrow the curriculum. Courses which we would have run post-16 with groups of 10 or 12, we cannot run them now. Our vocational offer has been hit hard too.”

ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman said that many schools with large 6th forms were facing budget cuts “well into six figures”.

He said: “The government protected school funding, but there was no protection post-16 and consequently it has gone down to a level where many schools are simply unable to make it match the curriculum that is needed. They are making very serious decisions about curriculum provision.

“We have done a lot of modelling which shows when schools are effectively going to hit the wall – all the evidence is that this is happening. It is going to undermine standards.”

A DfE spokesperson told SecEd: “We have worked to protect funding for 16 and 17-year-olds and have introduced a new performance system so colleges and 6th forms will, for the first time, have to show they are getting their students into universities, jobs and Apprenticeships.

“We have also ended the historic unfair funding difference between post 16 schools and colleges by putting both on the same rate and by funding on a fair per student basis, not per qualification – we are freeing them up to deliver high-quality and innovative courses which meet the individual needs of young people.”

What headteachers told us

  • “Post-16 funding down by £60,000 but the biggest hits are going to be due to increases in employers’ NI and pensions contributions, plus an assumption of a one per cent rise in salaries.”

  • “We balance this year and next from money put by – crash and burn in 2016.”

  • “Had to make cuts of £200,000-plus. Post-16 funding down five per cent per student. We are 1,160 with 360 post-16. More cuts next year at post-16.”

  • “We are having to find £180,000 cuts next year (833 pupils). We are consulting on increasing admissions and reducing teacher non-contact time. We are cutting three A level subjects next year, not replacing both teaching and administrative staff who are leaving, asking teachers to teach larger A level groups, cutting after-school provision, Young Enterprise etc. We are dismantling all the enrichment extras we have put in place between 2004 and 2010.”

  • “We are an 11-18 converter academy with 1,600 on roll. The budget cuts are certainly biting hard with increased NI and pension contributions, severe post-16 cuts and SEN and mainstream budget cuts.” 

  • “We have taken a significant cut and we have a healthy 6th form – down £150,000.”


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