School sixth-forms hit by 23 per cent real-terms cut in per-student funding

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The 16 to 19 education sector remains a “Cinderella service” with government funding continually failing to match its rhetoric on further education, it was claimed this week.

Funding per-student across 16 to 19 education has fallen dramatically since 2010, with school sixth forms seeing falls of as much as 23 per cent in real terms up until 2019/20. Further education and sixth form colleges have faced cuts of 12 per cent.

What is more, the £400m additional funding that colleges and sixth forms will receive this year looks set to be wiped out by “exceptional rises in student numbers”.

The warning comes from the annual education funding report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). It finds that funding is lowest in school sixth forms and sixth-form colleges. In the 2019/20 academic year, funding per-student was £4,600 in sixth-form colleges, £5,000 in school sixth forms and £6,100 per in further education colleges.

This compares to secondary school spending in England, which averaged £6,000 per pupil in 2019/20. The figure for primary schools was £5,200.

The government’s extra £400m for 16 to 18 education in 2020/21 was set to result in a real-terms growth in spending per pupil of about two per cent.

However, the IFS warns: “There could be a sharp increase in student numbers in colleges and sixth forms in 2020. Population projections imply a three per cent growth in the number of 16 and 17-year-olds in 2020 and growth of 13 per cent between 2019 and 2023.

“Exceptional growth in student numbers could easily erode much, if not all, of this planned real-terms increase in spending per student. The 16 to 19 funding system does have mechanisms to address significant within-year growth in student numbers. However, this is ‘subject to affordability’ and it is not designed to address significant sector-wide growth.”

A government White Paper on further education is expected before the end of the year. The government has committed to restore public funding for first full Level 3 qualifications for all age groups from April 2021. Further proposals are expected to increase funding for Level 4/5 courses, as proposed in the 2019 Augar Review of post-18 education and funding.

In terms of per-pupil school spending, the IFS report finds that it has fallen in England by nine per cent in real-terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20. This is the largest cut in more than 40 years.

The government has allocated an extra £7.1 billion for schools in England by 2022/23. This will increase spending per pupil by nine per cent in real-terms between now and then, the IFS says, and will “near enough reverse past cuts”.

However, it adds: “If we account for expected increases in teacher pay, the real-terms increase in spending per-pupil will be lower, at six per cent. In any case, spending per pupil in 2022/23 is set to be no higher in real-terms than in 2009/10.”

Imran Tahir, research economist at the IFS and a co-author of the report, reiterated the warnings about the impact of rising numbers post-16: “The government has made transforming further education a big priority. At the 2019 Spending Review, it pledged an extra £400m in funding for this year, which could represent the first real-terms increase in spending per student for about a decade.

“However, student numbers could have risen dramatically more than expected due to a reduction in training, apprenticeship and employment opportunities, on top of population growth. If there is no additional funding forthcoming, planned real-terms increases in spending per student could be mostly – if not entirely – eroded.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, bemoaned the chasm between government rhetoric on further education and the financial reality at the chalkface: “The government talks about the importance of further education, but simply doesn’t put its money where its mouth is, as this report starkly shows. The additional investment of £400m into the sector this year hardly touches the sides following years of real-terms cuts and the likelihood of rising student numbers.

“To make matters worse, colleges and sixth forms are having to foot the substantial bill for implementing and managing Covid safety measures without any reimbursement from the government.

“This vital phase of education prepares young people from all backgrounds for university and careers, and yet it is treated by the government in terms of funding as a Cinderella service. Colleges and sixth forms urgently require a significant uplift in funding that matches the government’s rhetoric.”

  • Britton et al: 2020 annual report on education spending in England, IFS, November 2020:


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