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Education spending - further education and sixth forms

Further education and sixth forms

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire education sector has faced a period of unprecedented challenge in seeking to provide remote lessons and support to students. In addition to these challenges, sixth forms and colleges are contending with a number of specific and long-running issues. Growing numbers of children and higher GCSE results in 2020 mean that the number of 16- and 17-year-olds in full-time education has increased to a historically high level. This has put pressure on spending and resources, which were already at relatively low levels following large cuts to spending per student over the previous decade.

Here, we provide a summary of the main trends over time. More detail can be found in our recent briefing note and in the dedicated data and methods section. All figures are presented in 2021–22 prices using the latest deflators. Levels and changes over time may therefore differ slightly from those shown in the briefing note.

Changing participation in further education and sixth forms

The share of young people progressing to full-time education after age 16 now stands at a historically high level. Figure 1 shows the percentages of 16- and 17-year-olds (broadly speaking, those in Years 12 and 13) in full-time education, part-time education or training, and full-time employment from 1985. The proportion of this age group in full-time education more than doubled from 40% in 1985 to 84% in 2019 and then up to 85% in the latest year of data (2020). At the same time, the shares of 16- and 17-year-olds in part-time education or training and full-time employment have gradually declined. As a result, there are now only 2% of this age group in full-time employment and 9% in part-time education or training.

Source: Department for Education, ‘Participation in education and training and employment: 2020’.

In addition to a higher fraction of young people progressing to full-time education, the total number of students in colleges and sixth forms is increasing as a result of population growth. Having fallen over the last decade, Office for National Statistics (ONS) forecasts imply a 13% growth in the number of 16- and 17-year-olds in England between 2020 and 2024, or an extra 160,000 young people. As a result, sixth forms and colleges must contend with increasing numbers of students due to rising participation and population growth.

Classroom-based qualifications, such as A levels and BTECs, have also become increasingly common. Over 90% of 16- and 17-year-olds in education now take classroom-based courses, while the share undertaking other forms of education, such as work-based learning, has declined since the 1980s.

The ongoing reform of the post-16 qualification landscape and move to T levels is creating significant concerns within the further education sector. Earlier this summer, the government stated that it intends to remove funding for other technical qualifications that compete with T levels, such as BTECs, between 2023 and 2025. This has since been pushed back to a transition starting in 2024. However, even this is a rapid transition given that T levels are still very new qualifications and about 18% of all 16- and 17-year-olds currently take Applied General qualifications (mainly BTECs).

While a comparatively low number of 16- and 17-year-olds undertake work-based learning (mainly apprenticeships), there was an especially large fall in 2020. The number of this age group taking part in work-based learning fell by roughly 30% between 2019 and 2020. This was largely due to the economic disruption created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to adhere to social distancing, which made it challenging for employers to offer apprenticeships and training placements. As a result, employer-based education and training among 16- and 17-year-olds fell to a historically low level. Only 3% of 16- and 17-year-olds took apprenticeships in 2020 and only 2% were in employer-funded training, both at their lowest levels since at least the 1980s and almost certainly a lot longer.

Changing spending levels

Figure 2 illustrates spending per student aged 16–18 in school sixth forms, further education (FE) colleges and sixth-form colleges in each academic year from 2013–14 onwards. Figure 3 examines trends further back in time. In all cases, we are examining spending allocated per student, as opposed to actual amounts of spending on students, which could be higher or lower depending on how schools and colleges allocate funding for different stages of education. Full methodological details are available here.

In each year, spending per student aged 16–18 is noticeably higher in FE colleges. In the academic year 2021–22 (and based on our imputed inflation series), FE colleges spent roughly £6,350 per pupil, compared with £5,100 in school sixth forms and £4,900 in sixth-form colleges. This is because students in FE colleges are more likely to study vocational qualifications and are more likely to come from deprived backgrounds, both of which attract higher levels of funding.

The pace of real-terms cuts between 2013–14 and 2019–20 was similar across school sixth forms and sixth-form colleges, with real-terms cuts of around 16–17% since 2013–14. The cuts to FE colleges have been smaller at 8% between 2013–14 and 2019–20. This reflects the fact that FE colleges have gained more from new funding streams, particularly those aimed at vocational qualifications.

Note: GDP deflator smoothed between 2019–20 and 2022–23.

In the 2019 and 2020 Spending Reviews, the government pledged a total of £700 million in extra funding for 16–18 education in the 2021–22 financial year as compared with 2019–20. However, the growth in spending per pupil in 2020–21 was partially depressed by the significant growth in student numbers in 2020, which was around 5%. Furthermore, because funding is determined on the basis of lagged student numbers, growth in funding levels will also lag growth in student numbers for a number of years.

Assuming a constant rate of inflation between 2019–20 and 2022–23, Figure 2 shows that spending per student grew by around 4–5% across colleges and sixth forms between 2019–20 and 2021–22. This represents the first time spending per pupil has grown in real terms in about 10 years and brings spending per student back to 2018 levels for sixth forms and 2016 levels for further education colleges.

Long-run trends

In Figure 3, we look at longer-term trends in spending per student. To do so, we must combine FE and sixth-form colleges, which we refer to as 16–18 colleges, and track spending by financial years instead as this is the way past data were presented. Once again, we adjust for a smoothed rate of inflation between 2019–20 and 2022–23.

Over the 2000s, spending per student in colleges increased from around £4,900 per student in 2000–01 to reach £7,100 per student in 2010–11, a real-terms increase of nearly 50% or around 4% per year. Spending per student in school sixth forms increased from £6,200 in 2002–03 (the earliest data point we have) to roughly £6,900 per student in 2010–11, a total increase of £700 or 11%. The faster growth amongst colleges meant that spending per student in colleges was higher than spending in school sixth forms in 2010–11, reversing the picture over much of the 2000s when spending was higher in school sixth forms.

Over the period since 2010–11, there has been a decline in per-pupil spending in all types of institutions. Between 2010–11 and 2019–20, spending per student fell by 14% in colleges and 28% in school sixth forms.

Between 2019–20 and 2021–22, spending per student was largely frozen in real terms according to these figures. This is a more negative picture than the growth over this period shown in Figure 2, resulting from the fact that Figure 3 relates to financial years and Figure 2 covers academic years. Given the way the funding system works, the extra funding will have amounted to more over academic years than financial years as it will include the effect of higher funding factors and higher student numbers for a full 12 months (instead of 8 months for financial years).

Nevertheless, the net effect of all these changes to date is that spending per student in colleges is 15% lower in real terms in 2021–22 than over a decade earlier in 2010–11. Spending per student in school sixth forms is about 28% lower than it was then.

In the 2021 Spending Review, the government allocated an extra £1.6 billion in funding for 16–19 education in colleges and sixth forms in 2024–25 as compared with 2021–22. This additional funding means that total spending per student in 16–19 education is set to rise by 6% in real terms between 2021–22 and 2024–25. Yet even with this additional funding, college spending per pupil in 2024–25 will still be around 10% below 2010–11 levels, while school sixth form spending per pupil will be 23% lower. Therefore, the additional funding for 16–19 education will only serve to partially reverse the cuts of the previous decade.

For colleges, this still leaves spending per student lower than 2005 levels, almost 20 years earlier. For school sixth forms, spending per student in 2024–25 will be 15% lower in real terms than it was over 20 years earlier in 2002–03. These historically large decreases in spending per student create immense resource challenges for colleges and sixth forms in seeking to maintain the quality of education.


Our methodology is available here.

Related work

Briefing note
In this note, we analyse how participation in and spending on 16–18 education have evolved over recent years.
Briefing note
This briefing note describes the range and level of COVID-related spending on education in England.
Briefing note
In this briefing note, we assess the key policy announcements made in the DfE’s recent ‘Skills for Jobs’ White Paper around the funding of post-18 education.
External publication
The Social Mobility Commission investigated the drivers of socio-economic differences in post-16 course choices and their likely social mobility consequences.