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Apprenticeships vs sixth-formers: will the DfE have to choose?

Hoping that the Spending Review will bring good news for all of FE and skills is far fetched, writes Julia Belgutay

apprenticeship starts levy anne milton training FE colleges funding

Rarely has there been as much consensus as there is about the fact that colleges, and 16-19 education in particular, need more funding.

Over the past few months, we have had the action associated with the #LoveOurColleges and #RaisetheRate campaigns, debates in parliament in which dozens of MPs spoke out about the struggle their local college faces, and report after report highlighting the plight of the sector. 

More on this: Commission calls for 16-19 student premium

Background: Apprenticeship funding may require 'choices to be made'

More news: Exclusive: Milton reluctant to 'constrain' apprenticeship system

'Funding has fallen'

There have also, of course, been colleges hitting the headlines for hitting serious financial trouble – or making significant changes to their size, structure and leadership to try and reconcile the demands on the sector with an ever tighter financial position.

Most recently, only a few days ago, the Social Mobility Commission called on the government to increase per-student spending in the 16-19 education budget “by a significant amount” within the upcoming Spending Review. 

There they are. The magic words. “Spending Review”. So much hope is being invested in those detailed spending plans for governmental departments, due over the coming months. Unions, college management and students alike are clinging on to the possibility that actually, this time, it will be good news for 16-19 learners and their institutions.

I suspect skills minister Anne Milton is right there with them. Numerous times, the former nurse has said she is doing what she can to persuade Treasury colleagues of FE’s need.

Apprenticeship funding

But actually, I wonder if there is another area within her remit that in the end will provide strong competition to colleges for those scarce funds: apprenticeships. In March, speaking in front of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, permanent secretary for the Department for Education Jonathan Slater said that, on the basis of current trends, there could be a “significant overspend” on apprenticeships in 2021, in no small part down to the explosion in more expensive, higher level apprenticeships – something that had to be a consideration in the upcoming Spending Review.

He added that as funding was soon to be “constrained for the first time, “something has got to give”. He suggested one of the choices for government would be to prioritise some apprenticeships over others.

However, this is not something the minister is keen on. Speaking to me about a month ago, Milton said she did not want to constrain the apprenticeship system by trying to shape the provision offered. 

Things were “going well” with the apprenticeship levy, she said (a view not necessarily shared by everyone), and it "would be quite a shame to constrain the system". And then there they were again – the magic words. “We have a Spending Review coming up”.

Significant funding boost

What are the chances both 16-19 education and apprenticeships will see a significant funding boost in the same Spending Review – one that we have all been told will be dominated by tight budgets all round? As much as the minister may not like it, it might be time to choose.

If we refocus the way the levy, and the apprenticeship system as a whole, functions, who loses out from that? I am not for a minute suggesting apprenticeships are not worth investing in. Quite the opposite. If, as some writers for Tes have suggested, we focus on younger learners, or specific levels where there are skills needs, and move focus away from higher level and management apprenticeships, for example – who would the losers be? Skilled people already in work.

Would that not be better than risking what precious funding comes the sector’s way in the Spending Review being split two ways? Or that the desperate need of 16-19 providers is diluted by the overall noise from all corners of the education system?

Of course, it would be great to be able to offer a funding boost to all of FE and skills. God knows it needs it. But in the same way triage teams in the medical field have to decide who among the injured requires help first, it might just be that, at this point, we cannot hope that we can get bandages on all bleeding wounds at the same time. This is a scenario that Milton, being a former nurse, will recognise all too well.

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