Secret Lecturer: Bare cupboards and a silver lining – sixth form colleges make their case

Secret Teacher

Dancing Queen dance moves by Theresa May at last week’s Conservative party conference were designed to surprise but were nothing compared to the reaction of college staff almost falling off their chairs when she followed up by announcing austerity was “over” and that “people’s hard work has paid off”.

“Astonished!” was the reaction of one sixth-form college colleague. “She’s set up Philip Hammond to fail – the Treasury is just not going to say it’s the end of austerity.” 

Sixth-form colleges, like their FE counterparts, have seen a decade of cuts, and yet the majority that have decided against becoming 16-19 academies will not receive the government funded 1.5-3.5% pay rise recently granted to schoolteachers. Any increase negotiated has to be funded out of a college’s own usually scant cash surplus – in other words, a real terms cut. For most sixth form colleges of 1000+ students that could mean between £50,000-£100,000 per every 1% of pay increase. 


Double whammy: real terms cut and pensions hike 

Last month employers were also told their contribution to teacher pensions could rise from 16% to 23% – a 40% increase in costs – from September 2019. Government funding is only guaranteed until the end of the current spending review period (March 2020), with any future funding decisions covered by the next spending review due in 2019. Unfunded contributions could cost colleges a further, similar amount on top of any pay increase. Add in cuts in tutorial funding and other funding sources, and many colleges have been left teetering on the edge. 

Do the sums. Even if colleges lobbying for a 5% funding increase succeeded during the inaugural Colleges Week (October 15-19), most of it would finance pay rises and pensions – with little or nothing left to spend on teaching and learning and other areas to support students. “I’d love to see money spent on our IT infrastructure which is creaking at the seams,” says my colleague. “Like in many other colleges, it needs an urgent, fundamental overhaul rather than merely slapping sticking plasters over quite chronic problems.” 


Sector gears up for lobby of Parliament

There’s a lot to lobby for next week. At the back of people’s minds is the fact that the post-16 education spending is not ring-fenced by the Treasury. Most students have 14.5 hours per week contact time and need 540 guided learning hours a year to be considered full-time. Is it feasible to consider cutting this provision further? Surely all 16-year-olds deserve a full-time broad education regardless of the curriculum route they choose. They have already lost the equivalent of one day per week with the move away from 4 AS levels.
What will be key priorities for lobbyists? 
•    A focus on funded cost of living pay rises and funded pension contributions for staff. 
•    A call for a percentage increase in income per year of at least 5% – or a very significant rise in the base funding rate per student. 
•    A stand against mere gesture politics of, say, a flat £200 increase on the base rate each year for the next five years which would not take account of increasing incremental staff salary costs and expenses year on year. 
•    A stand against any cut to the base rate and nip in the bud any government effort to grab headlines with futile, one-off funding gestures boosting individual subjects in specific areas, like maths, for instance. 


College morale is paramount

The government has pledged £50m to support colleges that have shown an increase in students passing maths qualifications in the years following 2015 as the baseline. Yet the fact that AS levels have since been abolished means numbers have been halved and few if any colleges have cashed in. It’s a bonkers idea. 

As college principals often tell me, their role is to stand up in front of staff, parents and students and be relentlessly positive. Despite everything, they’ll continue to ensure college morale and culture remain in place  and their colleges continue to thrive and run on discretionary effort.

There is, however, only so much discretionary effort a college can make without adequate funding. One way to boost income short-term is to take in more students but not all colleges can do that if they are at capacity. They are then forced to start robbing Peter to pay Paul. You could perhaps ditch your planned maintenance allowance – say you have around £100,000 put aside. If you stop maintaining your building you can maybe save £200,000 – until the boiler packs up and the roof starts leaking.


Lower quality = less numbers = fewer students 

The ‘easiest’ way to make money is on staffing efficiencies which is the worst thing for morale . . . larger class sizes, increased contract hours for teachers, reduced contact time with students, all of which lead to a quality cliff edge – not the same results you are used to getting which means students stop wanting to come to your college (leading to reduced per capita funding). It’s all horribly inter-related.

Ironically, one comment levelled at sixth form colleges from the DfE and the Treasury is ‘the more cuts we make, the better you seem to do’! And it’s true, college results have generally not been affected because of huge extra effort by staff. But something will eventually snap.

There is a silver lining. One college principal told me the sector has won the battle with MPs. “They want us to be a bit noisier. The Sixth Form College Association’s Raise the Rate and other funding campaigns like Colleges Week have helped with that. 


Now it’s time for Damian Hinds

“We now have to ensure the DfE prioritises this with the Treasury. If that doesn’t happen, we are on a hiding to nothing. Whenever I’ve spoken to MPs individually, all of them, including Conservatives, say we know you want more money and you deserve it. Skills minister Anne Milton has said so. Now I’m waiting for Damian Hinds to come out and do the same.”

Sixth form colleges simply cannot afford to see talented staff beginning to view schools as offering more attractive pay and conditions. Colleges are pipelines to the future economy and future social mobility and you can’t cut off that pipeline and expect prosperity. So what could be a more compelling reason for joining the mass lobby of Parliament in London on October 17 during Colleges Week? See you there.

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