A whopping £130 million per year has gone unspent in 16 to 19 funding for each of the past two years.
The budgetary underspend – attributed to low student numbers – was revealed in a parliamentary question, answered by skills minister Anne Milton, from former shadow schools minister Nic Dakin.
Mr Dakin asked how much of the Department for Education’s “budget allocated to 16 to 19-year old education was reallocated to other budgets in the financial years (a) 2014-15, (b) 2015-16 and (c) 2016-17”.
In response Ms Milton said that 16 to 19 budgets were set using “estimates of student numbers”:
“In 2014-15 and 2015-16 student numbers and associated costs were lower than these estimates, which resulted in lower spending than the forecast, by £135m and £132m respectively, representing 2.2% of the budget. This was available for reallocation,” she said.
But Ms Milton stressed that this underspend “did not affect funding per student”.
She was unable to say if there was a similar shortfall in spending for 2016/17 as “final expenditure is not yet available”.
The news has prompted angry responses from the sector.
James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, said that any underspend was “difficult to defend” in light of “funding cuts and cost increases” in 16 to 19 education that have led to courses being cut, class sizes increasing and support services being reduced.
“This money was intended for sixth form students and it should be spent on the education of sixth form students – every last penny should reach the front line,” he urged.
Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said that Ms Milton’s answer was “the first acknowledgement that there’s a sizeable underspend” in the 16 to 19 budget.
He argued that the unspent cash should have been used to “increase funding rates in line with inflation”.
“Instead colleges have been forced to cut back on courses and restrict teaching hours. The losers have been the current cohort of students,” he said.
Both the AoC and the SFCA, along with the Association of School and College Leaders, will be working to ensure the cash gets redirected back to schools and colleges, Mr Kewin and Mr Gravatt said.