Drop the Aspiration Tax

By Eddie Playfair, Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London and Vice Chair of the SEA. Originally posted at http://eddieplayfair.com/.

The government has announced that funding for 18 year olds studying in colleges and sixth forms in England is to be cut by 17.5% per student next academic year. Among those affected will be a large number of students currently in their first year of A level or advanced vocational courses who want to complete these courses next year. Many of these students left school without the grades they needed to progress straight on to an advanced course. By studying at intermediate or GCSE level for a further year they have been transformed from “no hopers” into “second chancers”. These are ambitious and aspirational students who have stuck with their commitment to education. They are doing the right thing; investing time in their education precisely as everyone has advised them to and as they are now required to by law. How were they to know that the system would decide that they don’t deserve to be funded for 3 years of further education at the same rate as those students who only need 2 years? What makes this cut so baffling is that these students are indistinguishable from classmates who are one year younger; they study alongside them and get the same teaching and support.

For next year’s 18 year-olds this cut will come in the middle of their 2 year course and it’s difficult to see any way for colleges to mitigate the impact. These students have enrolled, they want to achieve, they have completed half their course so what is it we would deny them that their 17 year old classmates receive? It is virtually impossible to cut course hours for different students on the same course, so colleges may end up having to cut across the board thereby affecting all students whatever their age.

In effect this will be a tax on aspiration and one which will hit the most inclusive and comprehensive colleges the most. Colleges and sixth forms which select and only admit “first time round” high fliers will lose nothing; their students are already in the fast lane. The colleges hit the hardest will be those which have a more comprehensive intake and run substantial foundation and intermediate provision from which students often progress to advanced courses. These “second chance” routes are a lifesavers for students whose education was interrupted or who did less well at school and need a little more time to develop their skills and confidence. The students on these courses lack neither aspiration nor potential, they simply need an extra stepping stone to help them achieve their ambitions and navigate their way into the fast lane.

At Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) in East London, this cohort of 18 year olds amounts to 550 students, some 20% of our total student body. Spread out across all our learners the proposed cut will reduce the funds available to support learning by 3.5% or over £500,000 per year. Changes to the funding methodology generally provide a clue as to what action the government wishes to incentivise. In this case, it’s difficult to see what it is we are expected to do: turn 18 year olds away? Force them into part-time courses which won’t lead anywhere?

Our experience is that this group of students achieves well, despite their shaky start. Of the 767 NewVIc students who progressed to university last summer, 130 got there through the 3-year route. Most left school with “unpromising” GCSE grades, some made a false start or had medical reasons for dropping out for a while. So 130 young people who would otherwise have been written off at 16 are now at university because they were funded to study for 3 years instead of 2. They are now studying the same wide range of degree courses as our other students and they are attending the same wide range of universities, including some of the most selective institutions.

Imposing this tax on aspiration runs absolutely counter to the idea of helping students according to their need. It caps ambition and penalises those providers doing the most to promote social mobility. The government is rightly proud of the pupil premium which is targeted at the most disadvantaged school students and colleges also benefit from disadvantage funding. So what has happened to the idea that ambitious young people with a greater distance to travel need more support?

This measure would be a harsh blow to the very young people who best epitomise determination and self-improvement through hard work. The government should keep faith with the instinct which gave rise to the pupil premium and they should drop the “aspiration tax”.


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