Five months after the general election, each of the main political parties appears to be sticking with the policies voters were offered in May. The Liberal Democrats reinforced their pledge to close the funding gap between colleges and school sixth-forms, although few people expect to be around to see them do it. They also remain the only major party committed to a 14-19 diploma, in line with the Tomlinson review.
The Conservatives, having promised to abolish the Learning and Skills Council, have had the satisfaction of watching Labour slowly dismantling the bureaucratic post-16 funding system that was created four years ago.
Since the election, a Learning and Skills Development Agency report has revealed that schools receive about 13 per cent more than FE colleges for teaching 16-19-year-olds. A government statement on what ministers describe as "technical anomalies" is expected in a few months' time.
Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat education and skills spokesman, believes the funding gap could be closed within five years without taking money from schools. "We have to find the money elsewhere in the budget," he says.
Chris Walden, the parliamentary officer at the Association of Colleges (AoC), says that, while Labour's 2001 pledge to close the gap has started to appear "half-hearted", the Liberal Democrats have now properly costed their spending commitments. "At the last election, they tried to make their policies more water-tight than in previous years."
According to Peter Pendle, the chief executive of the Association of College Management, Liberal Democrat statements on funding are music to the ears of colleges. "The trouble is that they can afford to say it because there's absolutely no chance they will be in government for the next 10 years," he adds. "That's a shame for FE."
Pendle is more concerned by Labour's rejection of the key recommendation made by Tomlinson and his suggestion that successful schools must be encouraged to open new sixth forms. "It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that it's part of a strategy to force colleges down a vocational route."
At Labour's conference in Brighton, the AoC organised a fringe debate on whether vocational qualifications are a likely stepping-stone to higher education. Colleges, says Walden, want to show they are keen to make the Government's limited 14-19 reforms a success and move on from the Tomlinson debate.
In the summer, the Learning and Skills Council launched Agenda for Change, which promises to simplify funding and improve colleges so they are better valued by employers.
"Further education is the engine room for skills and social justice," wrote Bill Rammell, minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, in the foreword to the report. "This is the first step on a journey that will radically change the whole post-16 landscape." But the report has been rather overshadowed by news that the LSC, set up by Labour in 2001, is shedding 1,300 jobs in the hope of saving £40m.
Stephen O'Brien, the Conservatives' spokesman on higher education and skills, insists it would be better to get rid of the LSC completely and fund colleges directly through the Department for Education and Skills.
The Tories, too, are keen to prevent local LSCs interfering in college planning and want employers to be given greater say over FE, in return for them helping to fund more courses.
According to O'Brien, savings made through less bureaucracy would also allow colleges to restore some adult classes they were forced to scrap after Labour diverted money towards 16-19 programmes and adult basic skills.
There would, however, be no Tomlinson-style diploma under a Conservative government. "Employers would jump at any suggestion of the removal of A-levels," O'Brien says.
Edward Davey stresses that the Liberal Democrats will continue to lobby for the Tomlinson agenda, and describes the Government's focus on adult skills as "inflexible and in some ways counter-productive".Reuse content