In the weeks before Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt delivered his much-awaited Autumn Statement, we knew, at least in broad strokes, what was coming. He was planning tax increases and public spending cuts, as well as further support to tackle living costs, in order to curtail inflation and prevent—or lessen the effects of—an incoming recession. What we didn’t know is whether or not these measures would go far enough, especially within the education sector, which has long since suffered from underfunding, lack of prioritisation, and a struggle to recruit and retain teachers.
Hunt’s attitude is encouraging
On that note, Hunt’s attitude is encouraging: “to be pro-education is to be pro-growth,” he says to a round of applause and chants. Both sides of the House agree with the sentiment, and the Chancellor has some new funding to announce to back that up: “I can announce today that next year and the year after, we will invest an extra £2.3 billion per year in our schools.” In tangential news, he also signals a rise in the national minimum wage and that of apprentices to match demand and living conditions, especially for those in the lowest paid jobs and young people transitioning from mandatory education to work. It speaks to this government’s commitment to education, and to putting it at the forefront of its economic policy, rather than investing into schools as an afterthought to other fiscal initiatives.
Further Education did not get a direct mention at all
But, as the gov.uk Education Hub blog suggests, Further Education—alongside universities and early years development—did not get a direct mention at all. The sector responds with expected disappointment—given the fact that the current Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, started her professional career as an apprentice, the important of post-16 education and upskilling should be clear; yet colleges and other FE institutions are relying on previously announced budget increases and cash boosts, including “bursaries worth up to £26,000 each tax-free, which are available to support FE teacher training in priority subject areas for 2022-23.”
However, the IFS numbers suggest that “spending per student in colleges is 15% lower in real terms in 2021–22 than over a decade earlier in 2010–11. Spending per student in school sixth forms is about 28% lower than it was then.” Net amounts trend downwards, and it will affect students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds the most, as it always does. Further from the IFS: “Yet even with this additional funding, college spending per pupil in 2024–25 will still be around 10% below 2010–11 levels, while school sixth form spending per pupil will be 23% lower. Therefore, the additional funding for 16–19 education will only serve to partially reverse the cuts of the previous decade.”
Maybe all this is to say that the government—and especially the Chancellor—was working with one hand tied behind his back, and there is only so much policy that can shift in one statement, especially when the previous budget was as disruptive to our markets as it was. But there is certainly a point to be made about these measures not going far enough.
FE Sector Reacts to the Statement
FE News put together a fantastic compilation of sector reactions in the immediate aftermath of the statement a couple of weeks ago. For instance, Aveek Bhattacharya, SMF Research Director, says, “More money for schools is welcome, but the fear is that post-16 and adult education, so often overlooked, will not get the support they need to help people navigate an increasingly choppy labor market.” Hunt’s Statement does indicate that there is more to come in this space: he has appointed Sir Michael Barber to conduct a comprehensive review of the skills reform programme, but per Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, “The Government is right that ultimately the way out of this is to grow the economy, including by investing in employment and skills, but we need concrete action rather than just further reviews.”
That is the key to supporting people on their way into the working world: applying our learning to actionable plans, which can be implemented nation-wide in schools and colleges both. Perhaps there are measures still coming, and the Sir Barber review will prompt an overhaul of the way we approach upskilling and Further Education; perhaps this is step one of many, and the more we push, the more attention students in Further Education will be awarded. This all remains to be seen—either way, the sector has a steep hill ahead, and it won’t be able to climb it without consistent support from public leadership, financial or otherwise.