The 16-to-19 education budget was underspent by £106 million last year, and campaigners now want the DfE to direct the money back to colleges.

The skills minister revealed the dramatic underspend yesterday after a question in Parliament from Green MP Caroline Lucas, but insisted it was due to low student numbers.

Representatives from school and college associations have warned it would be “indefensible” if the overspend were not now returned to the system ahead of the upcoming autumn budget.

“Budgets for 16- to 19-year-old education are set on the basis of the established funding formula which uses student number estimates,” said Anne Milton in her reply.

“As in 2014-15 and 2015-16, student numbers and associated costs were lower than these estimates in 2016-17, which resulted in a lower spend of £106 million.

“This represents 1.8 per cent of the budget that was available for reallocation. Because this was a result of lower student numbers, it did not affect funding per student.”

A similar question from Nic Dakin MP in July revealed there had also been underspends in the 2014/15 and 2015/16 financial years, of £135 million and £132 million respectively.

The coalition of school and college associations behind the Support Our Sixth-Formers campaign are now urging the government to redirect the underspend back to schools and colleges ahead of the forthcoming budget.

“We know now that £373 million of funding intended for sixth-form students has not been made available to educate these young people over the last three years,” said James Kewin, the deputy boss of the Sixth Form Colleges Association.

“Our students are already chronically unfunded compared with other countries and other phases of education, so for schools and colleges not to receive all the money that has been set aside for sixth form education is indefensible.”

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, Geoff Barton, echoed the call.

“This is the third year in a row that the government has underspent the money allocated for sixth form funding, at the same time as our schools and colleges are experiencing the greatest ever cuts to their sixth form budgets,” he said.

“In order to prevent an even further widening of the gap between state and independent 16-19 outcomes, this money should be returned to our sixth forms.

“The upcoming budget presents a perfect opportunity to remedy this inequality before it does irreparable damage to the life chances of our young people.”

The DfE has been asked for comment.

Last week it emerged that the chairs and principals of 140 colleges had written an open letter to Theresa May to beg for more funding for 16- to 19-year-olds.

They wrote: “Our students are now in danger of studying an impoverished curriculum, which has already reduced in breadth and choice, and cannot prepare our young people to take their place in employment and compete in a global economy.”

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