Sixth-form provision in state schools and colleges is under threat as never before. The Coalition Government may have pledged to maintain education spending – but that applies only to compulsory schooling for five- to 16-year-olds.
The biggest threat is faced by stand-alone sixth-form colleges, because they have no flexibility to divert money from elsewhere in their budgets.
However, as Chris Healy, the head of the highly successful Balcarras School, Cheltenham, writes below, sixth-form provision in schools is not immune from the problem. He has recently had to axe four teaching posts.
Even the provision for his 11- to 16-year-old pupils has been cut, as funding for special-needs provision is no longer fully provided. His school does not have enough students from the poorest 10 per cent of pupils to enable it to receive substantial funding from the Pupil Premium, which provides schools with extra cash.
At its recent Easter conference, the National Union of Teachers voted unanimously to support strike action in sixth-form colleges that have threatened to cut jobs because of the spending squeeze. It also criticised the £45m spent on a new selective free school for sixth-formers in Westminster, central London, while the rest of the sector is in dire financial straits.
Here, Chris Healy argues that unless the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, acts swiftly to protect funding, "genuine sixth-form provision will cease to exist in state schools".
I would guess that most people think that education funding has escaped the cuts in spending since the Coalition came to power. Some services, such as defence and welfare, have been slashed, but health and education, it is generally felt, have been protected from wounding cutbacks.
For my school, the reality is quite different. I am the head of Balcarras, an 11-18 comprehensive in Cheltenham. We have a large sixth form and we have seen its funding run down from £1,834,289 in 2011-12 to £1,538,769 this year. In 2011-12, we had 367 sixth-formers; next year we will probably have around 380, but receive £312,000 less in funding than we did then.
We have not been blind to the prospect of these cutbacks. Since September 2011, we have reduced our staffing levels by four teachers and two support-team members. Even so, we are likely to spend £41,000 over budget next year. We could not be much more efficient – we are full in every year group from the ages of 11 to 16 and we have average class sizes of 15 in Year 12 and 11 in Year 13 – but we face the prospect of having to live beyond our means.
This funding meltdown has two distinct facets: post-16 is easier to explain; 11-16 is less straightforward.
We have an outstandingly successful sixth form. Some 68 per cent of all our A-level grades are A*-B, despite being surrounded by grammar schools and some of the most famous private schools in the country. About a third of our leavers go to Russell Group universities, with four going to Oxbridge next September. Our most popular subject is maths and we have multiple groups in each of the sciences.
Yet in the past three years, our funding has collapsed. We have gone from receiving £4,999 per student to £4,526 this year. Next year, it will go down to £4,334. You simply cannot educate a sixth-former on that money, and somebody needs to tell Michael Gove that, and quickly, because otherwise genuine sixth-form education will cease to exist in state schools.
While our funding has dropped like a stone, fees in private schools have rocketed. There is no nonsense in public schools about being able to teach a sixth former for less than a main school pupil. It now costs £24,000 (non-boarding) per year in the sixth form of our nearest one, and £17,000 (non-boarding) in a more affordable independent, even though the results from their selected intakes are lower than ours. They recognise that a sixth-form experience should include sport, the arts and careers guidance. Our funding will not even cover the cost of teaching large groups for nine hours a fortnight.
Both coalition parties call for greater access for state-school pupils to Russell and 1994 Group universities, but their funding policy directly contradicts this aspiration – state-school students given the most meagre diet affordable will not be able to compete with the products of a rounded education at a public school.
In 11-16 the picture is more difficult to explain because it is more about distribution of the funding rather than a reduction. The Government has promised to protect frontline 11-16 funding, and has done so, but because of changes to the funding formula, some schools, including mine, have been big losers, due to the make-up of our pupils. Gloucestershire has adopted the formula criteria required by the Department for Education, replacing the more complex formula that operated before. The previous one had been agreed within the county and was significantly fairer, in my view.
We have a large number of pupils with a Statement of Special Educational Needs (23) and this has cost us £180,000 per year. The low-needs/high-incidence funding, to cater for pupils of low ability, is now targeted at pupils in the lowest decile rather than the lowest quintile. We have few pupils in the lowest decile, but plenty in the decile above that. This change has cost us another £150,000. We have probably lost about £350,000 per year from these and other adjustments, which were supposedly unlikely to cause great turbulence. Another school in our county has gained nearly £700,000 per year.
Our problem is then compounded by the low levels of deprivation among our pupils and parents. Our intake area is not wealthy, but generally our parents are employed and our free-school-meals figure is low – 2.9 per cent. Our Pupil Premium is therefore low, with 81 pupils giving us additional funding of £72,000.
However, what really damages schools such as mine is that so much of the rest of the budget allocation is also based upon deprivation factors. There are four comprehensive schools in Cheltenham. One is similar to ours, with similar levels of deprivation. The other two serve areas with a higher proportion of less advantaged pupils.
Our respective funding levels per pupil are as follows, before the Pupil Premium: "School A": £5,379. "School B": £5,194. My school, Balcarras: £4,491. These differences, in my view, are already too big. But then Pupil Premium is added and the level of funding per pupil becomes: "School A": £5,935. "School B": £5,674. Balcarras: £4,565.
These differences are out of proportion to need. They do not reflect fairly the levels of need of the pupils in the three schools. The pupils in schools A and B may be less advantaged than ours, but we still have lots of pupils with considerable needs, and this overemphasis on deprivation in all budget headings, before Pupil Premium is added, means that children in some schools are being generously funded at the expense of those in schools such as mine, so the needs of pupils such as ours will simply not be met.
The way to provide for disadvantaged pupils is not by diverting funds away from meeting the needs of ordinary, deserving young people such as those in my school.