Sixth form courses under threat as funding reaches crisis point

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Unless ministers take action on sixth form funding, post-16 courses will continue to be cut, class sizes will continue to rise, and some sixth forms will disappear altogether, it was warned this week. Pete Henshaw reports

There will be further and continuing cuts to sixth form courses across England’s schools and colleges unless the funding crisis in post-16 education is addressed, it has been warned this week.

Class sizes post-16 will also continue to rise and more sixth form closures are likely, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), and the Association of Colleges (AoC) have said.

The three associations are behind the Support Our Sixth-formers campaign, which is calling on the government to introduce a £200 per-student uplift in funding post-16 and to conduct a review of sixth form funding to “ensure it is linked to the realistic costs of delivering a rounded, high-quality curriculum”.

Spending on further education and sixth forms fell by 14 per cent in real terms under the coalition government. Currently, the average sixth form student receives funding of £4,531 a year, around 20 per cent less than the average of £5,751 received by an 11 to 16-year-old student in secondary school.

The Support Our Sixth-formers campaign says that this basic funding problem is being compounded by rising costs which are “putting huge additional pressure on stretched budgets”. The problem is worse for sixth form colleges, which cannot cross-subsidise in the way that 11 to 18 schools might be able to.

A campaign statement said: “Sixth forms and colleges have already had to make severe cutbacks. Without urgent action, there will be further cuts to courses, class sizes will continue to rise and school sixth forms in rural areas will simply disappear.”

Its manifesto adds: “The funding that schools and colleges now receive to educate sixth-formers covers the cost of delivering three A level or equivalent qualifications, and little more. As a result, the wider support offer to students has been greatly diminished. For example, it is increasingly difficult to address the concerns expressed by employers that young people lack the skills to flourish in the workplace.”

The campaign’s warning came as MPs held a Westminster Hall debate on 16 to 19 education funding last week.

The impact of cost pressures post-16 are already clear. In November last year the SFCA’s annual Funding Impact Survey warned that 66 per cent of sixth form colleges had already dropped courses because of funding cuts and increasing costs.

Furthermore, 58 per cent of colleges said they had dropped extra-curricular activities including music, drama, sport and languages.

The SFCA report warned of a “significant gap” between the funding attracted by sixth form students and the cost of delivering the curriculum. It added that larger class sizes and smaller study programmes were being seen in a majority of colleges.

Another report, published in October – commissioned by the SFCA and compiled by the UCL Institute of Education – described sixth form education in England as “uniquely narrow and short” when compared with other relatively successful international systems.

Currently, sixth form students in England are getting around 15 hours of weekly tuition and support. This compares to 26 hours a week in Canada and the 30 hours a week received by students in Shanghai.

The government has made a funding commitment to increase teaching hours for the new technical education qualifications – what are being called T Levels – when they are introduced in 2019/20 but the campaign says that this will only cover around 25 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds.

There is also concern at the impact that funding pressures are having on pastoral support for students. The campaign manifesto states: “Many institutions lack the resources to address the sharp increase in students reporting mental health problems. This has been compounded by cuts to the NHS and local authority budgets – the charity MIND recently found that local authorities now spend less than one per cent of their public health budget on mental health.”

The associations’ campaign says that the £200 uplift “would help schools and colleges to begin reassembling the range of support activities required to meet the individual needs of young people”.

It adds: “This ‘SOS uplift’ is affordable – we estimate it would cost £244 million per year to implement – and could be partly funded by using the underspend in the Department for Education’s budget for 16 to 19 education (that amounted to £135 million in 2014/15 and £132 million in 2015/16). As the funding rates for sixth-formers have been fixed since 2013, this modest uplift would also help schools and colleges to deal with the inflationary pressures and cost increases they have faced during that time.”

The campaign’s second goal is for a government review of sixth form funding. The associations believe that the Department for Education should “move away from funding sixth-formers based on a notional number of annual hours and an arbitrary funding rate”. It wants funding linked instead to the “realistic costs of delivering a rounded, high-quality curriculum”.

It adds: “Failure to do this will ensure that a part-time educational experience will become the norm for sixth-formers in England. This will have clear implications for social mobility – schools and colleges are united in the view that busy students are successful students. This is particularly true of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those that require additional help and support.”

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the SFCA, said: “A period of prolonged underinvestment means that sixth-formers in England are only funded to receive half the tuition time as sixth-formers in other leading economies. There is now a 21 per cent drop in education funding at the age of 16 that it is very difficult to justify – particularly as young people are required to participate in education and training until the age of 18.

“Without urgent investment, sixth-form education in England will become an increasingly narrow and part-time experience.”

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, added: “Funding is so dire that courses with smaller intakes such as music and drama are in danger of disappearing from sixth forms and colleges, leaving them as the preserve of only those who can afford to pay for them privately. We have a proud tradition of offering our young people a broad and rich curriculum but the inevitable consequence of under investment is reduced subject choice and opportunities.”

David Hughes, AoC chief executive, said: “The hours of teaching and support, the choice (our students) have and the enrichment they are offered have all reduced as funding cuts have bitten. That cannot be right.”


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