From education to employment

Money for nothing?

With the General Election on the horizon, political parties now have to put up or shut up about their spending plans. The stakes are higher than ever as some of these plans will become negotiating red lines in the event of another hung parliament.

Announcements about protecting key budgets are now a part of the political calendar in the run up to elections, and education and health are the usual beneficiaries.

To date in education we have seen pledges around keeping the total budget at the same level. But that doesn’t allow for inflation. Nor does it recognise the fact that young people now have to stay in education until the age of 18, and in order to find the places more investment will be needed.

I am a passionate supporter of early years education and we all acknowledge the importance of primary and secondary education. But Further Education including Sixth Form Education will need to meet an increasing demand with fewer resources if budgets are sacrosanct for other age groups.

Already we have seen three rounds of spending cuts for the Further Education sector, meaning that the additional support that students require, particularly if they have a disability, has been reduced dramatically.

If institutions have to try and deliver more for less they will do their best but there is a limit. Some institutions are not viable at the moment but are limping on. Eventually some of them will collapse.

So, what should be done?

For a start, we need to address the obvious inequity of the Government’s policy to refund VAT costs of schools and academies but not Sixth Form Colleges. On average this leaves Sixth Form Colleges with £335,000 less to spend on education each year. I am a strong supporter of the ‘Drop the learning tax’ campaign which seeks to put Sixth Form Colleges on the same level as other schools. This should be a quick win.

In the longer term we need to address the more fundamental questions. How much should we pay to educate young people aged 16-19, and what constitutes good value for money?

In terms of resource allocation, there is a clear dividing line between the two main parties. David Cameron has promised to protect existing schools spending, but made no pledge on 16-19s. Ed Miliband has committed to protecting the entire £58m Education budget, crucially including spending on FE, Sixth Forms and apprenticeships.

On the value question, to close the attainment gap between rich and poor children, there is a strong prima facie case for redirecting resources from secondary and Further Education to Early Years and primary education. We all know about the worrying research that a child from a disadvantaged background starts primary school a year behind their classmates from richer homes, and that this gap only widens thereafter. It makes sense, then, to close the gap at a young age, before children even enter primary education.

I completely agree that this must happen, but we proponents of Further Education need to make the case that this is not a zero sum proposition. We can and should properly fund Early Years and Further Education. There are places we can find the money: where there’s political will there’s a way.

We need to invest at each stage of a young person’s education. After all, the best way to ensure the future prosperity of the nation is to produce an educated, highly skilled workforce who can stand on their own two feet, earn higher wages and contribute their fair share to the public purse.

Barry Sheerman MP co-chairs the Skills Commission with Dame Ruth Silver

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