Further education funding has been frozen for 30 years – why don’t governments care about it?

Schools are also facing the biggest cuts in 30 years

Further education (FE) funding will be no higher in 2020 than it was in 1990, according to new analysis from the IFS, despite the fact that overall government spending has nearly doubled in the same period.

The study of per-pupil education spending shows that spending on 16 to 18-year-olds has been ‘continually squeezed’ for 25 years, while spending on other age groups has seen significant increases.

Primary and secondary school spending has almost doubled in real terms over the last two decades, while spending on early years education has surged from near-zero to £2.3bn.

However, although schools have been largely shielded from the public spending cuts of the last seven years, over the next three they will face the largest cuts in three decades, with school spending per pupil set to fall by 6.5 per cent.

Although schools spending is more likely to capture headlines, the IFS emphasises that its most significant finding relates to the FE sector, which has suffered dramatic funding declines relative to other education sectors.

In 1990-91, per student spending in FE was nearly 50 per cent higher than spending per student in secondary schools, but by 2015-16 it was ten per cent lower. According to the report, ‘spending on further education fell faster during the 1990s, grew more slowly in the 2000s, and has been the only major area of education spending to see cuts since 2010.’

Strangely, while the figures show that FE spending has been a low priority for successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, the justification for these cuts is highly unclear.

As Luke Sibieta, an author of the report, commented:

“The last 30 years have seen huge changes in spending priorities in education. There is a strong case for the increased spending on early years’ education. The rationale for focussing cuts on 16-18 year olds and in further education is much less obvious. The actions — as opposed to the rhetoric — of both Labour and Conservative governments suggest that they are agreed this is a low priority area for spending. Why they think that is unclear”.

It seems that, as schools brace for the cuts headed their way in the coming years, this analysis shows that a broad discussion of education spending and priorities is long overdue.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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