Judging them by their results: MPs, sixth forms and value for money

Yesterday the House of Common’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published its report on Getting value for money from the education of 16– to 18– year–olds.

While few people are excited by a select committee report, I was a little dissappointed by the PAC report. There was plenty of common sense in the report including the observation that larger sixth forms benefit from scale economies and a promise to scrutinise the impact of the abolition of Educational Maintenance Allowances on staying-on rates. That is all reasonable and useful. Nevertheless the PAC report was a let down.

Back in March, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its own research on sixth forms and value for money – indeed, it sailed under the very same title. Many of the findings and recommendations of the NAO fed into the PAC report. However, a key finding of the NAO was that sixth form colleges deliver impressive value for money:

Sixth-form colleges, which perform best on most measures of learner achievement, are paid at a lower funding rate than school sixth forms. While the Department has taken some steps to reduce differences in the funding of different types of provider, colleges receive £280 per learner less than schools.

Sadly this message was somewhat diluted in the PAC report which noted: School sixth forms currently receive £280 per student more than colleges.

Why was this lost in translation? I have no idea. Maybe it is because colleges lack political friends and public profile. (How many party manifestos have spouted off about schools and universities but forgotten that colleges even existed?)

To add insult to injury, the normally excellent Education Guardian had an article headlined: “Money being wasted on badly-managed colleges, say MPs”. No! The PAC may have failed to applaud sixth form colleges but it did not question college management. In fact, it observed: “further education colleges have become more adept at making tough choices to improve value for money”.

The Guardian article was better than its headline. It noted that PAC was concerned about the comparability of data for assessing value for money. (The NAO report pointed to the weaknesses in the quality of data coming out of school sixth forms although this was not evident in the PAC report.)

As results are published for the nation’s sixth forms, there is no way that the PAC (or the sub-editors at the Education Guardian) deserve an A*.

Bob Deed is a financial consultant in the college sector tweeting as @deedconsulting

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