First published in the Guardian on 10th November 2015
It is time to be blunt about what is going on in post-16 education. Over the past five years this crucial and often undervalued sector of education has been treated as a soft target by the government. It has been battered and worn down, and left to try to deliver for students from the “starvation rations” it has been bestowed.
The impact of the significant reduction of its budget – down 14% in real terms since 2010 – has been felt by students and college staff up and down the country. In my first few weeks as shadow education secretary, I’ve heard from many principals who list the teaching redundancies they have been forced to make and the courses they have been forced to drop. They describe their embarrassment at resources in their colleges which are now on a shoestring, with equipment in subjects such as science scaled back and extracurricular activities cut altogether.
The education secretary, Nicky Morgan, has said that she understands that post-16 education is “in a fragile state”. Yet it is her government that is modelling a further 25% to 40% cut to 16-19 funding. When, with no exaggeration, college leaders spell out the fact that additional cuts could destroy their institutions, I’m not sure how much her understanding is worth.
These new cuts will be devastating to sixth-form and further education colleges and the opportunities they offer for the young people who attend them. A 25% cut is the equivalent of four in 10 colleges closing – more than half of all sixth-form colleges and a third of further education colleges. The government has already made clear its intention to close down colleges as an outcome of its post-16 area reviews. Many principals, including those at some of the highest-performing post-16 institutions in the country, say their colleges are at risk.
The government feels safe in sacrificing post-16 education because it thinks people won’t immediately feel it in their pockets. But not only will our country suffer for this assault on young people, as we fail to invest in their futures, but it will also be forced to pay. Just this weekend, more than 100 chairmen of further education colleges signed an open letter to the chancellor, George Osborne, warning that these new cuts would tip their colleges “over the precipice”, holding young people back and significantly damaging the nation’s productivity, perhaps permanently. International evidence tells us that investing in the literacy and numeracy of students after the age of 16 is directly linked to higher productivity.
These cuts are being made at the same time as our country is facing a significant skills gap – shortages that will cost our economy £10bn this year. Across science, technology, engineering and manufacturing industries the picture is the same: there is a significant mismatch between the number of vacancies and the dearth of young people qualified for those roles. Yet these subjects – so vital to our country’s competitiveness – are among the first being dropped as a result of the immense pressure on budgets in sixth forms and further education institutions. Limiting opportunities for young people, including some of the most disadvantaged in our communities, comes at an enormous cost.
Although the actions of the Tories suggest otherwise, exams at 16 do not mark the end of a young person’s journey in education. All young people are now required to stay on in education or training until 18. So it simply makes no sense that we should continue to put up with this government treating post-16 education as if it is just an “add on” – to be raided every time the chancellor feels the urge.
At the last election, Labour pledged to protect the whole education budget from the early years to 19, yet this crucial difference barely featured in political discourse. Now that he can’t hide behind his pre-election spin, education spending is not a conversation David Cameron wants. In the run-up to the spending review this month, let’s make him have it.