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Cast your vote for a new boss, not a new budget

THE general election could change post-16 education, but it will take time to change the main budgets. The election happens in June 2001, but the Labour government has already sketched out its budgets for the three-year period to March 2004. The Labour party is campaigning on these plans, which include a 6 per cent real-terms increase per year for education and more for learning and skills.

Although the Conservative manifesto lists pound;8 billion in annual savings, they have promised to keep to current education plans. Some of their savings would affect further education at the edges - changes to New Deal, regeneration and university funding - but no further. Liberal Democrat plans go in the other direction, involving more spending to deliver a wider entitlement to free education.

If either party came to power as a result of the election - a long shot at this point - then we could expect a spending review within six months to implement these promises. Changes would start from April 2002. If Labour get back in, the timetable would involve a later review ending in July 2002. This would set out a three-year budget from 20036.

Either way, the main machinery for implementing changes in FE and training would be the Learning and Skills Council. After a major piece of legislation and an 18-month transition, there is little appetite for more structural change. The LSC has a clear run for 20023 to implement the blueprints set out a year ago in various consultation papers.

The consultation did not generate significant opposition, so we can look forward to a funding system built on common principles, but with variations for different sectors. Each sector will have a formula to calculate money per individual for programme costs, achievement, disadvantage and area costs.

Rates will be set nationally but volumes would be allocated locally by the local learning and skills councils. Implementation of this approach has been phased. Work-based learning was the pilot in 20012; adult learning the final prticipant in 20034.

The long-term plan is to use national funding to bring parity between college and school sixth forms and between adult learning wherever it happens. The short-term necessity is to get something up and running this autumn.

The timetable envisages finalising 20023 budgets by spring 2002. Vacant posts in the LSC may cause delays, but we can count on the system being delivered by the final deadline. After all, a smaller number of people have just created and implemented a national training formula in about six months.

The big risk from management vacancies is that the impact on colleges, education and training providers and students won't be properly assessed. The main lesson from every recent funding change is that time spent on reconnaissance is rarely wasted.

The work preparing the 2002-03 funding system will continue during the election period and seamlessly afterwards. It's almost certainly too late for voting to change this particular budget process, but there are other things involved in elections. Elections set the political tone and put people into power. Single sentences in manifestos become major programmes. Ideas floated now could be costed into next year's spending review and implemented the year after that.

A lot depends on a few key people. There will be new ministers in the Department for Education and Employment and there may even be a new department. These new ministers could bring new demands. It may be too late to change the nature and structure of the learning and skills system, but there is still time to amend priorities, redirect initiative funds or intervene after inspections.

The Learning and Skills Act established a system where thousands of local decisions determine how public money is deployed, but it also established a clear chain of command from the top to the bottom. Voting may not change your budget, but it could change the boss.

Julian Gravatt is director of finance at The City Lit. Email

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