The Department for Education underspent its budget for sixth form education by £200 million this year, according to figures revealed by ministers. An answer to a Parliamentary question shows that only £5.7 billion of the Department’s £5.9 billion budget for 16-19 year olds actually found its way to school sixth forms and colleges in the 2016/17 financial year.
The revelation has angered school and college leaders who have been forced to cut courses and reduce the support offered to students in response to growing funding pressures. The figures were disclosed following a question from Caroline Lucas MP, co-leader of the Green Party and Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sixth Form Colleges.
In October, a survey from the Sixth Form Colleges Association found that 66% of Sixth Form Colleges had dropped courses as a result of funding cuts and cost increases. The majority (58%) had also reduced or removed the extra-curricular activities available to students including music and drama, sport and languages.  It is a similar picture in school sixth forms, according to the Association of School and College Leaders. At a meeting of 160 school sixth form leaders last month, less than 20% had managed to avoid making cuts to academic or vocational courses.
The Department for Education’s data reveals that 1,219,769 16-19 year olds are currently educated in school sixth forms or colleges. The £200 million underspend could therefore be used to boost spending by £164 per student.
According to the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the average annual funding received by Sixth Form Colleges and school sixth forms is now just £4,531 per student - 21% less than the funding received to educate younger students in secondary schools. Despite this, the government has committed to increase spending on pre-16 education, but has made no commitments on sixth form education - despite three cuts to 16-19 funding since 2011.   
The Support Our Sixth formers campaign launched in May this year and backed by SFCA and ASCL included a recommendation for an immediate increase in sixth form funding of £200 per student to reassemble the range of student support activities (aimed at improving mental health, employability skills, careers advice and extra-curricular activities) that have been reduced as a result of funding pressures. It is now clear that £164 of this increase could come from the existing budget for sixth form education.
Bill Watkin, Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association said:
“Three funding cuts and ongoing cost increases have made it increasingly difficult for colleges and schools to provide the sort of high quality education and support that sixth formers deserve. We urge the Department for Education to ensure that this £200 million underspend finds its way to colleges and schools in time for the beginning of the academic year in September. Planned increases to pre-16 funding and post-16 technical education have masked the funding crisis in mainstream sixth form education – ours is the last budget in the Department for Education that should be underspent.”
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said:
“The government must commit to addressing, as a matter of urgency, the severe underfunding of sixth form education. Schools are being hit by rising costs but the situation in post-16 education is even more serious because these pressures come on top of funding cutbacks in the last parliament. The short term priority is to ensure this underspend reaches school sixth forms and colleges, but there is also a pressing need to conduct a fundamental review of sixth form funding”.
Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion and Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sixth Form Colleges said:
“I know from my own constituency that school sixth forms and colleges are facing huge financial pressures, so it is hard to understand why £200 million of the sixth form education budget has not reached the education frontline. The government needs to clarify where this money has gone and ensure that it is redirected to school sixth forms and colleges as soon as possible”.

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