Are budget cuts to FE comparable to those of secondary schools?
With the government recently announcing that practitioners based in schools are to receive a 2.75% pay rise, the funding in education debate has yet another topic for discussion. Much has been made of the headline grabbing nature of this figure, and the subsequent disparity between this and the reality (schools will be given 0.75% of additional funding, and need to find 2% from existing budgets – leading to concerns there will be cuts to services).
As the debate continues to rage however, little attention is given to the real and damaging lack of funding currently experienced in Further Education. With FE funding having fallen by 12% since 2011-12, and calls for it to be increased by everyone from practitioners, senior leaders, the AoC, the current Prime Minister and even prominent journalists, comparisons continue to be made with school funding and the shortfall between the two (FE funding is 8% behind Secondary funding).
So, what is the impact of this lack of funding? In schools, this is well celebrated with stories being released each week of breakfast clubs being shut, funding being requested from charities and even stories of senior leaders cleaning toilets in a bid to save money. As depressing in their regularity as some of these stories are, there has at least been a promise from the government that school funding is a priority and investments will be made in 2020.
And Further Education? What about the impact there? There are similar concerns about the effect this will have on the quality of provision and the impact this will have on the student experience, but the real concern is the impact funding will have on staff retention, with teacher wages in FE colleges around 17% lower than salaries in secondary schools. Within increasing accountability in FE, many staff are leaving the sector not only to go and work in schools, but also returning to industry where higher wages continue to be attractive.
The effect that this inadequate funding has on 16-19 year old students is obvious (shortages in classes means a lower quality experience for young people), but the effect this is having on adult learners is becoming more prevalent. Since 2010-11, there are one million less adult learners in Further Education or apprenticeships (down 29% from 3.2m to 2.2m). The effect this has on areas of high deprivation, social mobility and adult life choices is staggering.
So, what are the next steps? Promises have been made by the Prime Minister that funding for FE is vital, which is obviously a step change from previous governments, but FE practitioners and leaders are hoping that something will be done soon and that these weren’t words to win a leadership contest. The initial signs don’t look good (a recent DfE tweet caused uproar as school leavers were told they could start apprenticeships, University or work, with no mention of FE) and the PM recent statements exacerbating a sense of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide.
With more and more colleges struggling to stay financially viable however, action needs to be taken as soon as possible. The PM has ordered a ‘fast-track’ spending review into funding in education, but could this be too late for some? With more and more colleges struggling financially, T Levels fast approaching, changes to apprenticeships and the constant evolution of the industries FE prepares learners for (and the drop in adult learners), funding in FE should be a priority for all.
Yes, schools have been underfunded, but FE can mean so much more to more people around the country – career advancement, opportunities for a second career and the opportunity to learn skills and knowledge which are not available in any other sector.
Schools can and do adapt to the changes forced on them by funding changes/cuts. Somehow, Further Education has been able to do this whilst chronically underfunded, but it won’t be able to for much longer. With staff retention (specifically among leaders in the past few years) a major area of concern, it may not be long until some of the unique experience we have in FE has left the sector for good. To continue to offer world class provision, to keep pace with industry, to successfully integrate T Levels into FE and to make sure FE remains a viable option for all young people and adults, funding must be increased, before it is too late.
About the author
Jonny Kay is Head of English and maths at Hartlepool College of Further Education. He has previously worked as an English teacher and Head of Department in KS3/4 and tweets @jonnykayteacher. He also regularly blogs at www.thereflectiveteacher.co.uk.