Further education has an important role supporting the economy, says Chris Todd, but the government sees it as an easy target for funding cuts

“16–18 education has been a big loser from education spending changes over the last 25 years”. This was a stark, and hugely worrying, headline from the recent annual report on education spending in England from the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

Spending per student in higher education has risen by nearly 60 per cent since 1997. Spending on early years education stands at almost £3bn in 2017/18 from virtually nothing in the early 1990s. Yet an education system designed to keep students within it until the age of 18 sees funding levels in further education similar to that of 2006/07, and one of the few areas to see cuts since 2010.

We are at a crossroads where things simply must change, and quickly

It is simply wrong that the government continues to expect colleges to deliver high quality education and training within the current funding envelope. And I say this not just as a college principal, but also as a parent.

As a principal I know further education colleges are efficient and commercially minded organisations, exactly what you would expect a good public sector organisation to be. Colleges have done everything they can over the last ten years to absorb these continued cuts in funding despite many pressures coming our way. There is only so much you can trim and still deliver a quality service to students. As a parent it worries me hugely the impact the current funding arrangement could have on those who choose college as their route to a post-16 education.

The playing field simply isn’t level

The playing field simply isn’t level, and nor has it been for some time now. The government sees colleges as an easy target for financial savings and the poor relations in the educational sector. The recently published IFS report follows the DfE announcement in July that school teaching staff were to receive a 3.5 per cent pay rise, taking the pay gap to £7,000 between college and school teaching staff. We are at a crossroads where things simply must change, and quickly.

I, as do all of my staff at Derwentside College, care passionately about the impact a strong further education sector provides. We see the value in it every day in terms of our learner achievements and the positive uplift in their confidence and self-esteem. I want to see colleges admired for the hugely valuable work they do, and funded appropriately. I am confident that if this were to be the case, we would make an even bigger impact on the regional and national economies.

The skills agenda is so important to the future of our country and colleges play an integral role in this. What we urgently need is a long-term funding strategy for further education that recognises this, providing the resources and certainty colleges need to plan ahead with confidence and to focus on what is important: the skills of our future workforce.