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
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The Independent Online

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

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