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Undervalued Assets

ian pryce

Ian Pryce discusses how data shows that colleges in the education sector are often overlooked and compared unfairly to schools and universities and how closing the pay gap between school and college teachers would cost only £500 million, demonstrating a commitment to technical education at a relatively low cost.

Early in my career I was flattered to be sent to a national masterclass for promising future local government chief officers. One session involved the analysis of a large set of benchmarking data about our councils. I was worried to find all my course colleagues had explained and claimed credit for all positive data, and discredited all adverse data as invalid. Expecting to be criticised I was shocked when our tutor, a top private sector executive, got really angry with everyone else. I have never forgotten his rant:

“We would kill for this sort of rich information in the private sector. You are so lucky. Yes, the data may not be perfect, but it provides so much information that can be used to make the services you provide much better. Isn’t that your job? Stop trashing data that tells you to improve!”

I am sure this is something we all recognise. Often our first instinct is to question data that shows us in a bad light, defending large gender pay gaps or low apprenticeship achievement rates for example. To some extent this is understandable in a world where anyone can be a critic, and everyone has a platform to make that criticism. One of the most common defences is to look for unfairness in data, especially to claim we are not comparing like-with-like. But this ignores just how much you can extract from data that is not strictly comparable; it doesn’t make the data meaningless.

Four major parts of the education system

A few weeks ago I came across an excellent data slide produced by Julian Gravatt at the AoC that painted a picture of the scale of four major parts of the education system: state schools, private schools, universities and colleges. The data was drawn from impeccable but different sources, and no-one has claimed the data is strictly comparable. It is reproduced here:

Accepting its imperfections, the table surely paints a picture of a neglected college sector, educating enormous numbers of people at a spectacularly low price.

Colleges as independent corporations

This month colleges have celebrated their 30th birthday as independent Corporations, created by the Further & Higher Education Act 1992. As the name of the Act implies, colleges were provided with similar freedoms to the polytechnics that had been similarly made independent before. We were regarded as a new sector, more similar to a new university than a school.

The table confirms this is a reasonable approach to take. It shows there are now a similar number of colleges and universities. The average college supports 9,649 students each year, not too dissimilar to the 15,588 students in the average university, but on a different planet entirely to the typical school of 368 pupils.  Further, the majority of college students are adults, so different to any school. The average age of our students is higher than that of universities, yet government policy over the last decade has increasingly treated colleges as big schools.

College and University incomes

The significance of the sector is also telling, educating over 2 million students each year, like universities, and doing so for a fraction of the cost, £7 billion compared to the £44 billion income of universities. Of course, the university figure includes investment in research, and many college students are part-time, but often our part-time learners receive as much teaching as do many undergraduates. These differences mean average incomes are very different, with universities at £258m and colleges just £31m.

Student to staff ratios

Perhaps a more telling comparison is with schools. Colleges educate a quarter of their student numbers, using just over a tenth of the teachers, for a seventh of the investment; we educate four times as many students as private schools yet employ fewer teachers. We are a high-volume, high-productivity and high-efficiency success story at a time when volume, productivity and efficiency are key to our future economic prosperity.

Given the difficulty in recruiting enough teachers, does the table offer some ideas to make better use of those we have?

The data is clearly not strictly comparable but the student to staff ratio is striking: 19 pupils per teacher in schools, 9 in the private sector and 45 in colleges. We know in practice that group sizes in colleges are smaller than schools due to wider student choice, specialisation and health and safety constraints, but it highlights how little we have in common with the school sector. 

We also know there is little evidence that smaller class sizes are effective. Given that, isn’t the use of nearly 60,000 teachers in the private sector, mostly trained at taxpayer expense, to teach only half a million affluent pupils, a seriously poor misallocation of a precious resource?  It suggests excess capacity of perhaps 30,000 teachers, an army roughly 60% of the total teaching workforce in colleges.

Closing the gap in teacher pay

Finally, the table suggests it would only cost about £500m to close the £9,000 gap in teacher pay between schools and colleges, because our sector has such a relatively small teacher workforce. At just 1% of total school income wouldn’t that demonstrate a real commitment to technical education for a bargain price?

When I first became Principal at Bedford College there were two pieces of basic information people always found unbelievable, particularly the most influential in the community. The first was that our college had twice as many 16-18 “sixth formers” than all the Borough’s many sixth forms put together and each year enrolled about one in fifteen of all local adults, and second, that we sent more people to university than the largest academic school sixth form and all Bedford’s private schools put together.

Very few people understand our scale and importance, even those within government or education itself.  This is because we serve so many different groups of people, in different ways, with relatively few staff.  So, let’s use this table to surprise and shout that there are now roughly the same number of colleges as universities, teaching comparably large numbers of people, and generally thirty times the size of a school. We are the mass educator of adults over the age of 24, not universities. We are the market leader for 16-18 year-olds, not state schools. We are efficient and productive. And maybe if government can surprise us in return with the small investment needed to bring staff pay in line with schools, we will deliver a sector with a reputation to match that of our richer university one.

By Ian Pryce, Principal, The Bedford College Group

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