Our education system should empower us all to fulfil our full potential. However, the chronic underfunding of colleges has created a crisis in further education that squanders that potential and reinforces social inequalities.

Despite the fact that colleges educate the majority of 16 to 18-year-olds – there are 712,000 studying in colleges compared with 424,000 in schools – for too long the vital work they do has been overlooked and underfunded.

In the east of Sheffield in particular, the lack of school sixth forms means that further education colleges are especially important. Yet, over the past ten years, college funding has fallen by around 30% and, as a result, courses have been closed, student support has been cut, and teaching provision has reduced.

Our local Sheffield College hosts excellent facilities and apprenticeships but budget cuts limit their ability to invest in teaching equipment and resources. Staff have told me that they want to provide mental health support and extra-curricular activities for their young students but simply can’t afford to do so.

Budget cuts are also making it extremely difficult for colleges to recruit and retain teachers. But these problems can’t come as a surprise to the Government when college staff have received a real-terms pay cut of 25% since 2009 and, on average, a college teacher’s wage is £7,000 lower than a school teacher’s wage.

As a result of all this, colleges in this country struggle to provide the same level of teaching as their counterparts abroad. While, in most EU countries, 16 to 18-year-old college students study for 25-30 hours per week, students in the UK are limited to an average of just 16 hours.

Our education system should be set up to allow everyone to upskill and retrain throughout their lives but that simply isn’t possible when colleges can’t hire staff, buy equipment, or fund student support services.

This is an issue for our young people, for our economy and it’s a class issue – the crisis in further education disproportionately affects young people from working-class families who frequently rely on colleges to obtain life-changing qualifications. At Sheffield College, 51% of 16-18 years-olds come from households with a low income. This figure rose by 9% in 2017/18 and will rise again by the end of the academic year in 2018/19.

All of this means that the persistent under-funding of further education hampers social justice. Without access to top-quality further education, it isn’t possible to gain new skills, to develop careers, or to realise full potential.

Labour understands this. That’s why, in government, we’ll establish a National Education Service that would aim to overcome, not reproduce, social inequalities. We’ll ensure that the education budget is distributed fairly between colleges and school sixth forms and restore the Education Maintenance Allowance for young people from lower and middle-income backgrounds.

If we want to invest in our young people to develop their skills and capabilities, we need to invest in our colleges.

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