Ex-Cabinet Secretaries wade in on 18-year-old funding cut debate

Two former education and skills secretaries joined the charge against a controversial funding cut for 18-year-old learners as Skills Minister Matthew Hancock was grilled by MPs in a special debate on the issue.

Former Education Secretary David Blunkett and former Skills Secretary John Denham joined the Westminster Hall debate over plans to cut the full-time education funding rate for 18-year-olds by 17.5 per cent on Tuesday.

The Department for Education has faced criticism over the proposed cut and an impact assessment behind it.

Mr Denham, who held the now-defunct Skills Secretary for two years post under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said: “It is not entirely clear, now that these students are going to be funded by about £700 a-year less than other students, whether the minister thinks that colleges should continue to support these students in their third year to the same quality of education despite not having the money — or whether the minister wants these colleges only to offer these students two years of education?

“The consequence of this decision is to concentrate the cuts on a sub-set of colleges, and in particular that is those colleges which are in areas with historically weaker school performance because those areas will throw out more able students who require a third year to get to level three or A-level. It has
the effect of concentrating the cut on areas with a higher than average level of deprivation.”

During the debate, several MPs questioned why the impact assessment had taken so long to be released. It showed that FE colleges will be among the worst-hit of all institutions — with an average reduction in funding of 3 per cent.

For land-based colleges it’s 2.5 per cent, for commercial and charitable providers it’s 1.5 per cent, and for sixth form colleges it’s 1.2 per cent.

But for school sixth forms it’s just 0.4 per cent. However, the report does not say how much cash the funding rate cut, due next academic year, is expected to save. The Association of Colleges is among those to have objected to the cut, estimating that it could save the government £150m.

And Mr Blunkett, who was Education and Employment Secretary for four years under Prime Minister Tony Blair, said the impact assessment had concerned colleges in his Sheffield constituency.

He said: “Sheffield College and Sheffield Longley Park Sixth Form College are somewhat bewildered as to who could possibly have undertaken an impact assessment that so grievously missed the point of what it is going to do to young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Labour MP Kate Green, who organised the debate, raised further concerns about the impact the funding rate cut would have before Mr Hancock defended the cut in response to Shadow Junior Education Minister Rushanara Ali.

She had described the way the decision had been made as “reckless and irresponsible”.

Mr Hancock said: “We are faced with a cut across the government to make savings to reach the goals we have to reduce budget deficit.

“It is difficult being a minister when there’s no money left, but we all know whose fault that is.”

He told MPs that the reduction would take funding for 18-year-olds back to 2012/13 levels, but he admitted the decision to target older learners “wasn’t easy”.