Basic-skills reform will focus on least able

Funding will be used to reward progress rather than qualifications

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Funding for literacy and numeracy, which represents about a quarter of the skills budget, is to be reformed amid claims that colleges and training providers are failing to help adults with the greatest problems.

Following the chancellor's autumn statement, which announced a change in basic skills funding, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the billions invested in Skills for Life since 2003 had made no impact on lower-level literacy, and that numeracy had seen a slight decline. It said more than one in seven adults lack functional literacy; for numeracy, the figure is close to one in four.

Instead, it said, the funding had been concentrated on a large improvement in literacy for level 2 and above, with the Department concluding that colleges and training providers had focused their efforts on adults who needed the least help to gain a qualification. A proposed pilot scheme would instead give greater rewards to providers working with students who start with a lower skills base. The total funding available remains the same, however.

The decision marked a victory for adult education body Niace, which in an inquiry last year said that too often providers were tempted to focus on those who could most easily gain a qualification. "Niace is really pleased to see the Government focusing on those with the furthest distance to travel," said David Hughes, its chief executive. "Our literacy inquiry recognised that a lot of the welcome investment in literacy and numeracy has gone on those who were easier to reach and missed those who are in the greatest need.

"The focus on qualifications, while good for those who achieved them, did exclude too many people. A new focus on skills and progression is really welcome and we look forward to working closely with Government and the sector to make sure that this reform delivers and reaches those it's intended for."

As well as this pilot for adults whose lack of basic skills was likely to hinder their progress in the workplace, the chancellor's statement on Tuesday revealed a series of measures aimed at improving employability. Sector skills councils covering industries from manufacturing to the nuclear, along with employers' organisation the CBI, are planning to offer "kite marks" to courses in science, technology, engineering and maths which are valued by employers to help students choose the best qualifications for work.

And as well as a pound;50 million fund for young people out of work or education, the Youth Contract will offer 250,000 18 to 24-year-olds who have been unemployed for less than a year work experience or training at a sector-based work academy.

However, it is not clear that there will be any extra funding for the training component of the work academies, - a collaboration between colleges and training providers, Jobcentre Plus and employers. Since the scheme launched in August, aimed at 50,000 people initially, providers have used funds from their existing adult skills budget. Derby College, one of the first to launch a work academy programme, said it has helped 29 people into work of its initial intake of 70.

Money paid as an incentive for employers to take on apprentices is being doubled to pound;60 million as part of the Youth Contract, allowing another 20,000 subsidised places in small businesses beyond the allocation next year. But the largest element of the pound;940 million contract is a subsidy of pound;2,250 for employers simply to hire people aged 24 and under.

There was less good news for FE teachers: they were warned that colleges would be unlikely to get around the 1 per cent public sector pay-rise cap. "Departmental budgets will be adjusted in line with the pay rises I have announced," the chancellor said. That would mean colleges' budgets would be restricted too, said Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC).

Just as unions were preparing for this week's pension strike, Barry Lovejoy, head of FE at the University and College Union, said another two years of pay settlements falling far below inflation was likely to reignite disputes over salaries.

"It's extremely disappointing, particularly in the light of two previous very low pay rises recommended by the AoC," he said. "We were obviously putting our efforts into addressing the pensions issue, because our members have made it very clear that is their main priority. But the two issues are intimately linked: I think the focus will come back to the pay issue."


Key points for FE from the chancellor's autumn statement:

- Reform of basic skills funding to address the hardest-to-reach adults.

- A 1 per cent cap on pay rises which is likely to squeeze college budgets and affect FE pay.

- A Youth Contract offering an extra 250,000 places in work experience or training.

- Science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications to be scrutinised by an employer "kite-mark" scheme.

- pound;50 million to help teenagers out of work or education into jobs, apprenticeships or courses.

- A share of pound;600 million for 16-19 free schools specialising in maths.

Original headline: Basic-skills reform will incentivise providers to focus on least able

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