You cannot deny the political cleverness of the Chancellor. A week on from the Spending Review people are still shaking their heads at how much less bad it was than they feared. Many are already sitting down to plan the next five years given that, unless those billions slip back behind the sofa again, there is at least some predictability in funding for the sector.
Earlier this week I was sitting round a table with colleagues from BIS, SFA, Niace, UCU, AOC and a range of think tanks looking at where the spending review leaves Further Education (FE). This slightly rosy view, maintained by BIS spokesperson Bobbie McClelland was finally punctured by Gila Tabrizi from UCU, who pointed out the catastrophic cuts in funding suffered by the sector in the past five years, and that even the spending review settlement of funding being ‘protected’ still amounted to a real cut in the adult budget of 8%. Funding for the sector will remain very tough for the foreseeable future.
There was much agreement on the main issues confronting FE at the moment, the extension of student loans, further devolution, the area reviews and apprenticeships. Briefly, views around the table suggested a lack of confidence in any great uptake of student loans in the immediate future. A lack of understanding of the scheme and reservations about loans from many of the traditional cohorts who use FE seemed unlikely to disappear quickly. Robbie McClelland presented a very positive picture of the area review process, making much of the implicit localism of planning provision on a regional basis; however, many others felt that the lack of engagement from schools with sixth form provision would distort the process. The government’s view, that larger and more specialist colleges were the way forward, was not necessarily enthusiastically endorsed by those around the table who have seen these cycles before. Nor was participation by the independent training sector considered although their funding would be included in plans.
But the real topic was apprenticeships and the employer levy. There was absolute agreement that the levy will be a ‘game-changer’, though less agreement on whether it will be a positive one or not. No FE college will be able to ignore the £3 billion suddenly thrown on the table, and so massive shake-ups of apprenticeship provision are inevitable. In particular those that have subcontracted apprenticeship management are likely to want to regain control of this prospectively lucrative sector and it is likely that many new players will enter the sector looking for a share of the money on offer, including higher education institutions offering new high level qualifications.
Almost all who spoke were concerned that there was a danger that apprenticeships were considered to be the answer for everyone and everything. There were concerns about quality of training, given that the main aim of apprenticeships is employment. Anecdotal evidence was proffered about existing courses being ‘rebadged’ and of apprenticeships which focused on accrediting prior learning rather than acquisition of new skills. And it should be noted that the conversation was all about 16-25 apprenticeships; the government has completely side-stepped the issue of re-training older workers, possibly leaving that aspect of education and training to DWP.
Sadly we know from previous experience that when there is new money on the table, the sector will find ways of spending it. I certainly recall the scandalous waste of money during the Train to Gain days, and this is something that must not be repeated. The challenge over the next few years will be in ensuring that the massive increase in apprenticeship numbers is achieved through proper high quality apprenticeships for those in employment delivered by high quality teachers in high quality organisations. The current reforms (the ‘Trailblazers’) are still bedding in and must be retained as a basis for the expansion.
The meeting was left with many imponderables: English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) was noticeable by its absence from government planning, and there was no mention of special educational needs (SEN), aside from one comment about ensuring equal opportunities. It would appear that older learners are marginalised and apprenticeship programmes could swamp traditional vocational programmes. The Ofsted Annual report, issued this week, highlights the impact of the government’s English and maths GCSE policy on FE colleges in particular, where there has been a decline in the number of Good or Outstanding results. It is clear that this will get worse before it gets better. The spending review may not have been as bad as feared, but it still leaves the sector with a vast array of problems, not helped by the ease with which a £3 billion war chest is rolling in on a parallel track.