Cash-strapped colleges forced to ditch A levels
Students at risk of being ‘short-changed’ amid funding squeeze, warns AOC
THE REFORMED A levels – taken for the first time this summer – were designed to be “more rigorous” than the legacy qualifications and “provide students with the skills and knowledge needed for progression to undergraduate study” .
But new research reveals that 60 per cent of colleges offering A levels have reduced the number of subjects available to students. A survey of college leaders, carried out by the Association of Colleges (AOC), in partnership with Tes, shows that a wide range of subjects is being axed.
One in five of the colleges surveyed had stopped teaching German over the past year, with multiple colleges also dropping accounting, dance and music (see box, below right).
Half of the colleges surveyed said that the main reason for cutting A-level options was a lack of demand from students, with 9 per cent blaming low funding and 6 per cent attributing it to staffing issues.
This year’s entry figures from Ofqual reveal that the biggest drops for this cohort were recorded in critical thinking and general studies (both discontinued by awarding bodies), followed by ICT, performing/ expressive arts and communication studies.
But it is the issue of funding, and the consequences for the breadth of education on offer, that poses the biggest concern for AOC chief executive David Hughes. “The most worrying impact is that on students,” he says. “Their range of opportunities to study and the number of hours of tuition, support and extracurricular activities they receive have diminished enormously.
“Our young people are in danger of getting short-changed compared with their counterparts in other countries and compared with previous generations. That cannot be right, which is why we have called on the government to increase the base rate for 16-19 funding to match that for 11- to 16-year-olds.”
According to the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA), per-student funding for sixth formers is, on average, 21 per cent less than that for secondary students. Hughes adds that A-level reforms have also had an impact on recruitment, but it is too early to say exactly what effect this will have.
He also blames the increased competition from school sixth forms for a reduced curriculum in some areas, as institutions compete for students. Between 2010 and 2015, 169 new school sixth forms were opened. However, the number of students aged 16-18 declined during the same period.
Guidance published by the Department for Education in April 2016 stressed that schools should only be allowed to open a new sixth form if it would have 200 students and offer 15 different A levels.
“The government has agreed to the opening of too much new 16-19 provision, even in areas of good supply,” Hughes adds.
Last month, apprenticeships and skills minister Anne Milton revealed that there had been an underspend of more than £130 million in the 16-19 budget in each of the past two years, which she partly attributed to lower-thanexpected student numbers.
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the SFCA, says financial pressures are the primary reason for A-level subjects being dropped.