FE commissioner Richard Atkins: ‘Funding for FE is unfair’

The sector’s funding is “unfair”, the FE commissioner has told a parliamentary hearing.

Richard Atkins was asked about the challenges facing colleges during an accountability hearing of the Commons education select committee this morning.

“If you asked me about the distribution in the UK between the funding that is given to further education and higher education, I would say that was unfair,” he told MPs.

“I say that as the principal of a college that offers both FE and HE, and as a university governor.

“So I would say the distribution that we’ve chosen as a nation over the last 30, 40, 50 years between FE and HE isn’t fair,” he said.

He was replying to a question on the fairness of FE funding from committee member Thelma Walker, after he had described it as “complex and sparse” and said it “could be improved”.

“I’ve spent my career lobbying for more funding for FE,” he told her.

Earlier in the session he claimed that funding pressures could also be behind the fall in colleges receiving the highest grades from Ofsted.

“I think the sector has been through a very difficult time with Ofsted and with financial stability,” he said.

While the “main factor” at colleges where he intervenes was “governance and leadership”, funding cuts were among the factors that had “challenged colleges more generally”.

These included the “40-per-cent cut in adult funding between 2010 and more recently in 18+ funding and so on, the fact that the 16-to-18 funding rate hasn’t gone up since 2010, and the fact that there is increased competition in the 16-to-18 market”.

His criticisms join those of Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman, who asked last month for an increase in the base funding for 16- to 18-year-olds.

During her speech at the launch of the Ofsted annual report in December, she said the “sector will continue to struggle” without an increase in the base rate of funding for this group.

The Sixth-Form Colleges Association claimed in November that sixth-form colleges were at “tipping point” after their overall Ofsted ratings fell for a third year running, largely as a result of funding pressures.

But a campaign supported by a range of organisations, including the SFCA, the Association of Colleges and FE Week, demanding an increase in the base rate came to nothing recently after the Department for Education ruled out an increase in funding for 16- to 18-year-olds.

“We have protected the base rate of funding for all 16- to 19-year-old students until 2020 to make sure every young person has access to the education or training they deserve,” a DfE spokesperson said.