Disappointment at AoC as DfE cuts £15m from bursary fund over free meals

A Department for Education (DfE) move to cut £15m from the discretionary bursary fund for providers with FE Free Meals allocations was described as “disappointing” by the Association of Colleges.

The Education Funding Agency (EFA) revealed in a letter to providers, published on Thursday (January 14), that it was moving to act over the issue of “double funding” — where providers had FE Free Meals allocations, at £2.41 a-day per learner, and could also use discretionary bursary fund money to pay for disadvantaged learners’ meals.

A spokesperson for the Association of Colleges said: “Colleges always work hard to make sure disadvantaged students don’t miss out on good quality education and training at a college.

“Therefore it is always disappointing when Government decides to cut funding that supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The letter in which the £15m cut was revealed came from EFA national director for young people Peter Mucklow.

He said how a “ringfence” between the two funding pots was being removed to “maximise flexibility for institutions receiving both allocations”.

Mr Mucklow wrote: “Prior to academic year 2014 to 2015 colleges and FE providers had been supporting the cost of meals for students who needed them on a discretionary basis from the discretionary bursary. The external evaluation of the discretionary bursary estimated that this represented over £15m of discretionary bursary spend annually.

“Provision of FE Free Meals is now established and in its second year of implementation. In academic year 2016 to 2017 we will remove £15m from the budget in respect of this double funding. For academic year 2016 to 2017 discretionary bursary allocations will be adjusted to take account of this for those providers in receipt of an allocation for post-16 free meals.

“We plan to allocate free meals funding to FE institutions for academic year 2016 to 2017 based on their R04 data returns based on the numbers of students they have assessed as eligible for and in receipt of free meals in academic year 2015 to 2016. No change is planned in the £2.41 rate.”

The move comes around 20 months after FE Week revealed a DfE U-turn to allow providers to boost the £2.41 FE Free meal handout with funding from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund.