A good time for a bad decision
It was perhaps inevitable that the decision of the government to cave in to a pressure group of the privileged, and to abandon the idea of funding per student for 16-19s, should be announced now. It was either a new minister, ‘bounced’ into a quick decision which his more experienced predecessors knew to duck; or, a pre-planned strategy to let it out just before Parliament and most of the education world went on summer break. We’ll never know for sure, though we can be sure that to give extra funding for those pupils who are easiest to teach is a thoroughly retrograde step.
One of the key achievements of Alison Wolf’s proposals to reform 16-19 education was to return the sector to funding students, not qualifications. It makes every sense to leave it to institutions to decide how big a programme a student can tackle, as they do at every other stage of schooling. This system worked well for decades in school 6th forms, until the Learning and Skills Council decided to harmonise the 16-18 system around a funding model better suited to adult FE.
The Wolf reforms to funding were intended to get rid of the perverse incentives inherent in the LSC model; but one perverse incentive had become deeply ingrained. Those institutions that select only the most able students found that the discredited qualification funding regime had suited them financially; to put it crudely, students doing four ‘A’ levels earn twice the cash of those who can only cope with two. Although therefore there had been scarcely a word of concern about large programmes before the LSC regime was introduced, the prospect of its removal caused panic. Institutions would no longer be able to offer large programmes, it was claimed — and thus, able state students would no longer be stretched.
Investigation of these claims has shown them to be largely without foundation — which is presumably why Matthew Hancock wisely refused to give in to demands to introduce a sort of ‘posh kids’ premium’. In education policy, however, it seems that it is not the quality of evidence that matters, but the quality of your contacts. This maxim is well-illustrated by comparing the large-programmes debate with the recent furore over cutting funding for 18-year-olds.
In this latter case, it is clear that the 17.5% reduction to the funding of 18-year-olds will damage the quality of programmes that institutions are able to offer to young people. It is also clear that the effect will fall hardest on the less advantaged; those who for whatever reason are taking longer than the presumed norm to reach level 3 standard. It will disproportionately affect those in FE colleges, those on vocational programmes and those from disadvantaged homes.
Despite a powerful public campaign, which has united organisations across the whole of the sector, the minister has so far refused to give way. Although the discriminatory effect of this cut could be avoided without additional cost (by, for example, applying a flat-rate reduction to all 16-18 programmes) there has been no hint of compromise. Far from being concerned that 18-year-olds should be ‘stretched’, the government line is that these students have had their fill of enrichment activities and only deserve a year of ‘FE Lite’.
In the end, schools and colleges will not discriminate in this way, of course. They will manage the cuts across the whole of their budgets to make sure that, as far as possible, students’ programmes match their needs, and not the funding incentives which are no less perverse for being planned. That is of course what the selective sector would have done, had it had been faced down. That is what it always did in the days before LSC. It is revealing, however, that government finds it easier to defend the privileges of the fortunate than to provide equal treatment for those who have fallen behind.
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