John Harris

Journalist & Author

Further education provides a lifeline. But try telling the government that | John Harris

The gilded cage of Westminster appears to regard FE colleges and the skills they offer as irrelevant. To cut would be both destructive and counterproductive

Conservatives must currently be thrilled with the state of the English education debate. The fact that tuition fees were such a prominent part of the Labour platform back in May seems to have quietened that issue, and with it, grave concerns about the huge cultural and professional changes sweeping through higher education. For all the opposition to academies and free schools, the election result has re-energised the Tories’ great crusade on that front, and, it seems, wrong-footed Labour anew. When it comes to cuts, meanwhile, the mainstream media reaches for its collective notepad, hears the usual reassurances that the schools budget is protected, and then backs off.

Meanwhile, two huge stories bubble away. One is the crisis in state sixth-form education, which falls outside the department for education’s five-to-15 “ringfence” – and which, contrary to all that chatter about the glories of academic achievement, is really struggling. School sixth-forms are having increasing problems meeting curriculum requirements, but the gravest problems are faced by England’s 93 sixth-form colleges – some of which had lost around a third of their funding by the end of the last parliament, as well as being clobbered by the abolition of the educational maintenance allowance. Now they fear even worse cuts to come.

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