The poor relations

Improved funding has made a difference to colleges. But only more money will quell growing levels of staff discontent, says Beryl Pratley

When I switched from a cosy higher education job to return to the further education sector in 1998, a colleague asked what the attraction was. I replied that further education makes a more obvious difference to more people more quickly than any other part of the education system I've worked in. An Oxford University economist, researching organisational values, once told me of his surprise at the strength of commitment among FE staff.

When I switched from a cosy higher education job to return to the further education sector in 1998, a colleague asked what the attraction was. I replied that further education makes a more obvious difference to more people more quickly than any other part of the education system I've worked in. An Oxford University economist, researching organisational values, once told me of his surprise at the strength of commitment among FE staff.

That commitment now comes with a hefty price tag. If you choose to teach in a further education college, you will be paid about £3,000 less than if you choose to do comparable work in a school. If you choose to manage an FE college, you will have to do so on 10 per cent less funding for the same number of students than if you were managing a school sixth form. If you need a new building, you will have to join a long queue, because there is only £400m of capital funding to be shared out between colleges next year (schools have £5bn).

And whereas a school building will be 100 per cent funded, you will have to raise 65 per cent of the cost of yours from other income. Instead of a simple balance sheet where most of your money comes from one customer, the LEA, you will have to juggle up to 30 funding streams, and bid separately for most of them. Instead of one or two well-established programmes in your sixth form, leading to A-levels, or vocational GCEs, you will be running a variety of product lines, leading to hundreds of vocational awards. I'm not surprised that Jim MacWilliams, the head of Leeds College of Technology has resigned in despair.

This may all make FE sound like some sort of club for masochists, but it's the bit of the education system on which hinges the Government's Skills Strategy and its wish to get more young people into university, and the regeneration of some of the most deprived parts of the country. It also picks up many of the under-16s that schools cannot provide for, and trains plumbers. Two-thirds of all the people gaining university entrance qualifications do so in FE. Most of those who leave school and train for skilled technical and professional jobs spend some of their time in an FE college. Further education colleges are working in some of the toughest neighbourhoods, trying to raise levels of literacy, improve health education and encourage better parenting. Ministers accuse them of not raising standards high enough or fast enough. But colleges are often trying to fix in a year what 10 years of schooling have messed up. FE staff don't give up easily.

Now Ivan Lewis, Minister for Lifelong Learning, has told these long-suffering folk to get off their knees and "stop being the victim, stop being the Cinderella". They thought they had. Two years ago, things were looking up. College principals thought they could start spending instead of penny-pinching. Ministers promised that the funding gap with schools would close. Three-year spending plans offered stability; good performance would attract higher funding, and best of all, bureaucracy would reduce.

There is undoubtedly more money for the sector. Cinderella has bought a ball ticket and a new pair of shoes. But she still doesn't have the keys to the larder. Mark Haysom, the LSC chief executive, has admitted the gap between college and school funding, for which there is little imminent prospect of closure. Schools with falling numbers have some of their 16-plus funding protected. Graham Moore, of Stafford College, has beaten government priority targets, but is now taking funds from other earnings to meet the cost of the extra students.

Three-year spending plans are nearing collapse because the Learning and Skills Council has discovered that it won't have enough money to cover college expansion. All last week, principals were waiting for news from their local LSCs about what their income is actually to be this year. I was shown a balance sheet from a college expecting to receive the extra funds for top quality achievement. An 11 per cent increase in income last year was turned into a decrease by employment costs and inflation.

And bureaucracy? The new funding guidance for 2004-5, recently published by the LSC, is 186 pages long. In a parliamentary debate on FE this month, Mark Simmonds MP revealed that the LSC spends about three per cent of its £8bn budget on administration, compared with less than one per cent spent by its predecessor body. Colleges have on average taken on six more administrators to deal with extra demands. A recent "light touch" inspection on a college already acknowledged as excellent involved 22 inspectors for a week.

But the commitment is still there. Colleges are currently exercising their juggling skills to avoid turning learners away from the door in September. Roland Foot, fairly new to the post of principal at Bournemouth and Poole College, is faced with the possibility of an 8 per cent cut in his budget. This cut will fall on young adults in the area, who have slid down the scale of priorities, as compared with full-time 16- to 18-year-old students, and older adults without GCSEs. Mr Foot has the option of making up the shortfall by recruiting overseas students at £5,000 a time, but he has an eye on the local role of the college. This principal has returned to the college where he began as a student 30 years ago, and recognised the same old equipment and work surfaces in the catering training kitchens.

Other bits of the current agenda are costly. Adult learners struggling with courses at GCSE level and below need individual support, but there are no special funds to provide this, as there are for younger learners. Colleges running courses for 14- to 16-year-old school pupils receive only about 40 per cent of the cost.

A measure of the current levels of concern was the turnout for a recent special meeting at Westminster, to lobby MPs and question the minister, Lewis. FE principals were singing in chorus. The Association of Colleges has put a fairly conservative price tag on the sum needed to make up the FE budget: £1.9bn. Nobody begrudges schools their extra resources, and universities also have some catching up to do, but the 14-19 agenda, increased entry to higher education, improved skills for the workplace, and a reduction in the number of adults who can't read the phone book, will cost, and continue to cost. Those nice, committed people in FE are losing patience.

The writer is an education consultant and college governor

education@independent.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Software Developer

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Software Developer i...

AER Teachers: Graduate Primary TA - West London - Autumn

£65 - £75 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: The school is seeking gra...

AER Teachers: Graduate Secondary TA - West London

£65 - £75 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: The school is seeking gra...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Surrey - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Croy...

SPONSORED FEATURES

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones