How the FE sector – and its students – are being starved

It’s time to end the inequity that means more than 103,000 16 to 18-year-old college students miss out on a free school meal, says Nic Dakin

If you’re 16 or 17 and in a school sixth form, you can get a free school meal; if you’re at an FE or sixth-form college, you cannot. This simply isn’t fair.

As a former principal I know how important it is for students to have a meal during the college day. There is a direct correlation with better motivation, attendance and achievement.

That’s why I’ve been a keen supporter of the Association of Colleges’ No Free Lunch? campaign.

I’m not alone. MPs from all political parties supported my ten-minute rule bill (a parliamentary device to raise an issue and put pressure on the government) to right this wrong.

As a result, the government now understands the strength of feeling about the issue. So much so that it has moved away from the argument that it could not do anything about it because colleges did not have the kitchen facilities.

A clear nonsense, but that’s what it said. Now it is saying that the schools don’t get the extra money when everyone knows it was consolidated into their base budget some time ago.

More than 103,000 16 to 18-year-old college students miss out on a free school meal as a result.

Worse still, 13.3 per cent of college students are from more disadvantaged backgrounds, compared with 8.3 per cent of school students. This means that those with the greatest need are suffering the greatest disadvantage.

This unfairness is causing real hardship to colleges and their students, especially now the education maintenance allowance has been scrapped.

It will only get worse if the participation age is raised.

The chaotic fragmentation of post-16 education is another reason to right this wrong. It cannot be right that a student at the Hackney University Technical College can get a free meal, while the student at Hackney FE College – they share a campus, remember – cannot.

And if that injustice isn’t enough, consider this: funding per 16 to 18-year-old is lower than in other stages of education.

In 2012/13, funding per full-time 16 to 18-year-old will average £4,543, while funding per secondary pupil aged 11 to 16 will average £5,576.

Those with the greatest need are suffering the greatest disadvantage”

It’s hard to believe that it can really be 22 per cent cheaper to educate a 16 to 18-year-old compared with a younger child.

Interestingly, once the same student goes on to university he or she will have an average £8,000 spent on them for a teaching week of around 14 hours.

Unlike schools, colleges have to pay VAT on revenue spending and buildings. The new academies are almost identical to colleges in their legal status, but are exempt from paying VAT on most of their purchases.

There is no rational reason or argument for this difference.

And what’s more, academies currently get their insurance costs back from the government; colleges do not.

Finally, it’s worth noting that unlike all other education institutions, sixth-form colleges get no quality improvement funds.

I worked in post-16 education for 30 years so know how hard people in the sector work and what a great job they do.

But they are being asked to perform more than miracles now. It’s not surprising that the number of experienced principals deciding to retire is reaching epidemic proportions.

But what matters is treating our young people fairly.

While the government seems content to sprinkle money around liberally on its pet projects of free schools, university technical colleges and the like, public money is being wasted on inefficient, unproven structures.

Meanwhile the FE sector — with its track record of success and innovation — and its students are being starved.

The students, their colleges and UK plc are missing out.

Nic Dakin, Labour MP for Scunthorpe and member of the Education Select Committee 

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