Social mobility undermined by spending plans

This week David Cameron pledged to protect per-pupil funding for five to 16 year-olds if the Conservatives are re-elected in May.

The announcement means that post-16 education remains unprotected from potential cuts – the only section of education to be left in such a vulnerable position.

We often talk about the importance of social mobility in our society. I believe that further education offers the greatest opportunities for social mobility. It equips school leavers with the skills and qualifications required for successful careers and enables adults to access higher education or retrain in light of changing circumstances.

However the funding consistently fails to measure up.

The latest spending plans relate to primary and secondary school education. We then go on to protect degree level programmes by ensuring that universities receive their £9,000 fee upfront. The Government claims it back from the student when they are in a position to start paying.

Further education colleges do not have this same luxury and are at risk of being completely overlooked in the learning journey. In reality, the Raising of the Participation Age (RPA) now means that everyone has to stay in education or training until 18. Surely this is even more reason to address funding issues for the post-16 sector.

We are used to working creatively and seeking alternative sources of funding. Investments in online learning may help to combat some shift, but we can only do so much with reducing budgets. Constant pressures on post-16 funding will inevitably mean fewer learning hours per student.

The Association of Colleges has called for a “once in a generation” review of education funding to determine how money is spent at each stage. I, like many others in the sector, would welcome the move as a means to ending damaging changes to funding.

One opportunity would be to review VAT rules. The Sixth Form Colleges’ Association has launched a campaign –backed by some high profile celebrity alumni – urging the Department for Education to refund VAT costs. It claims the current VAT rules leave the average college with £335,000 less each year to spend on the education of its students. Changes to VAT rules could similarly ease the burden for further education colleges.

As a sector we should all be getting behind a campaign for fairer funding and making the case for investment in a sector which significantly improves the career and life chances of young people.

Sally Dicketts is Group Chief Executive of Activate Learning.

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