HOW many hours of face-to-face teaching do you think the government is paying for our 16- and 17-year-olds to get in schools and colleges? Twenty hours a week? Twenty-two?

Not even close, says York College Principal Alison Birkinshaw. It is actually 15 hours a week. And when a pupil reaches 18, that falls even further, to just12 hours.

That's barely enough to cover three A-levels, says Dr Birkinshaw. It is nowhere near enough to cover four. And it doesn't take account of the thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds who have to continually retake their maths and English GCSE until they manage to get the grade C (or Grade 4 under the new system) that the Government now requires. That teaching time comes out of their 15 hour a week allocation - meaning there's even less time for their A-levels or vocational qualifications.

All of which adds up to trouble ahead, says Dr Birkinshaw. For years now, colleges and sixth forms have been subsidising their budgets for 16- to 18-year-olds by taking money away from the budgets for younger pupils.

They've also been cutting corners elsewhere - allowing class sizes to creep up, for example, and restricting pay awards to teaching staff.

That has all been in a desperate attempt to protect the quality and breadth of the education that older teenagers are getting.

York Press:

Classroom contact: but older teenagers are in danger of not getting enough teaching time, says Alison Birkinshaw

But soon, something will have to give. "We have been doing what we can to protect 16-18 education," Dr Birkinshaw says. "About two thirds of students here at college are studying significantly more than 15 hours a week. So so far, it hasn't impacted on our results. But we're carrying significantly more costs. It cannot continue."

The danger is that, unless funding for the crucial 16-18 age group isn't increased, the education we can offer these teenagers will be impoverished - hopelessly narrow and inadequate compared to that offered to their own teenagers by European rivals such as France, Germany, Norway and Denmark.

That will not only mean us failing in our responsibility to give a whole generation of young people the education they deserve - it will also be bad for the future of the country, says Dr Birkinshaw. In a post-Brexit world in which Britain will soon have to make its way alone on a global stage, we run the risk of failing to produce a generation of young people with the skills needed.

"We need our young people to be skilled, and ready to take their place on the global stage, otherwise how can we compete?" she says.

"At the moment, we're managing to protect what we offer. But for how long?

"We could have a whole generation of young people going through school and college who are not equipped to do what we want them to do."

Her concerns over education funding were one of the reasons Dr Birkinshaw successfully stood for election this year as President of the Association of Colleges (AoC), an organisation representing 274 further education colleges across England.

"I stood because I wanted to speak out about the work that FE colleges do, and the challenges we face," she says.

That is exactly what she has set out to do.

In her role as this year's AoC president, she has been spearheading a campaign for a modest increase in the budget for 16-18 education - up from £4,000 per student per year, to £4,200. They want that higher figure to include 18-year-olds, too - colleges currently receive only £3,300 a year for students once they reach 18.

If the campaign succeeds, it would be the first increase in 16-18 budgets since a new funding system was brought in in 2013, she says.

York Press:

The buck stops here: college heads written to Theresa May asking for a review of 16-19 funding

Dr Birkinshaw added her name to a strongly worded letter sent to Prime Minister Theresa may on October 6, which was signed by no fewer than 141 college principals.

It warned in blunt terms of the threat to the country's future competitiveness if funding was not increased.

"Our students are now in danger of studying an impoverished curriculum, which has already reduced in breadth and choice, and cannot prepare our young people to take their place in employment and compete in a global economy," the letter says.

The Prime Minister has yet to reply, although 10 Downing Street has acknowledged receipt of the letter. When contacted by The Press the Department for Education did issue a brief statement (see panel below) talking about the huge investment being made in 16-19 education., although it didn't address the specuific points made by Dr Birkinshaw and other college heads.

For Dr Birkinshaw, the daftness of the funding system is underlined by the fact that, even while they are struggling to offer teenagers a decent education, colleges are having to return millions of pounds of funding allocated for 16-19 education back to the government because they're not allowed to spend it.

The funding is allocated on a per student head: so if colleges have fewer students than the number the government is prepared to fund, they have to return the excess money (the 'underspend'), rather than using it to improve the education offered to other students.

This issue, too, is addressed in the letter to Theresa May. Allowing colleges to keep the money they underspend would be a quick and easy way to boost funding for 16-19 year-olds in the short term, the letter says.

"This will help us to maintain the breadth of provision and high standards we would want for our young people and attract and retain excellent teachers and trainers," the letter says. "We would also ask your Government to commit to a full review of the funding of education over the 16-18 phase, recognising that in the longer term proper investment in education and training pays back down the generations."

Under-funding isn't the only issue that Dr Birkinshaw campaigned for the presidency of the AoC in order to highlight. She is also hugely frustrated at the Government's insistence that all students studying in further education colleges must get at least a pass in GCSE English or maths.

It is absolutely right that young people should be literate and numerate, she agrees. That isn't the problem.

The problem is with the curriculum they are expected to study.

It is a curriculum that seems to have been determined by someone with a public school education, she says (hands up, Michael Gove). And it simply isn't either relevant or appropriate to students studying construction or plumbing or hairdressing or even IT.

York Press:

Construction students at York College. How relevant are Victorian newspaper extracts to their job prospects, asks Alison Birkinshaw?

She produces an example of an English GCSE paper from this June in which students were asked to comment on a Victorian newspaper extract from the 1800s in which a mother talked about her feelings once her son had grown up and left home.

"I have a very pleasant house and much company," the woman wrote. "My guests say, 'Ah, it is pleasant to be here! Everything has such an orderly, put-away look - nothing about under foot, no dirt!'"

What possible relevance has that to the future career aims of students studying vocational or technical subjects, Dr Birkinshaw asks?

"This just seems remarkably inappropriate!" she says. "Why would this be useful to students who really need to show an up-to-date understanding of 21st century language?"

The problem is that colleges are not allowed to vary the curriculum. When the new T-levels (a planned new technical qualification) are brought in in a couple of years time, there may well be an opportunity to introduce a more relevant English curriculum for technical students, Dr Birkinshaw concedes.

But until then, thousands of students are being forced to waste precious teaching hours on studying something that really means little to them, she says. Many take their English GCSE time and time again until they finally retch the required level - distracting from their key studies.

"We should be able to come up with a maths and English curriculum that is relevant to the career ambitions of our students," she says.

Many students at York College would no doubt agree...

Statement from the Department for Education

When approached by The Press about the issues raised by Dr Alison Birkinshaw, the Department for Education released the following statement:

“We are investing nearly £7 billion during 2017/18 to ensure there is a place in education or training for every 16 to 19-year old who wants one and the proportion of 16 to 18-year olds participating in education or apprenticeships is now at a record high.

“Students who achieve a good level in maths and English increase their chances of securing a job, an apprenticeship or progressing to further study, and we’re working closely with the post-16 sector to look at how we can ensure more students are mastering these important skills.

"The government has also announced additional investment in technical education for 16-19 year olds, rising to over an additional half a billion a year once implemented. A further half a billion pounds this year alone is being provided to help post-16 institutions support disadvantaged students and those with low prior attainment.

"Our commitment to further education has contributed to the current record high proportion of 16 to 18-year olds participating in education or apprenticeships. The government will keep 16 to 19 funding under consideration."