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Cinderella gets a glimpse of a ticket to the ball

'Maybe this year the losers will not lose

so much and the winners will gain a bit more. Distribution is always easier with a bigger cake' IBY THE time you read this, II'l be on holiday in Portugal, and my college along with others will know the funding allocation for the financial year 2000-2001 which begins in August.

So we will be laughing or greetin', or maybe smiling or grimacing. No doubt in either event strong drink will feature somewhere in colleges in the west - I know most of our east coast colleagues are too douce for that.

As usual there is a deal of confusion about the precise arrangements, though a good deal less confusion than occurred under the old dispensation when colleges would receive their grant allocation a few weeks before (and one year, only two weeks before) the beginning of the new financial year (and somehow would be made to feel grateful that we got to know at all). I suppose this was a new version of bricks without straw - budgeting without funding.

But things have improved: the grant allocation will be announced three months before the start of the new financial year and that is the earliest I can remember since before incorporation in 1993.

And there is new money: there is to be an increase in grant funding to colleges of pound;28.4 million compared with last year. The Association of Scottish College reckons that this should provide pound;17 million extra for expansion, pound;3 million to correct underfunding and pound;4 million extra each for new investment in infrastructure and ICT. Overall, this adds up to an 8.7 per cent increase.

Henry McLeish, the minister, at a press conference on March 30, gave the news of the pound;28.4 million and said some complimentary things about colleges in the process. So that's all right then! Well, not quite, because the big deal is what each individual college gets - it's not just the global sum allocated to the sector that matters. It seems certain that there will be winners and losers once again but maybe this year the losers will not lose so much and perhaps the winners will gain a bit more. Distribution is always easier with a biggr cake.

Before I begin to sound like a spokesperson for the funding council (I don't get paid enough for that) and before anyone infers from what I've said so far that we are cringingly grateful for this largesse, you should know that the funding council and its political masters in the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Department have set out a demanding list of tasks to be achieved in return for the extra funding.

In a letter to Robert Beattie, chairman of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, Mr McLeish outlined a series of policy objectives. A significant amount of the additional resources will fund the creation of 40,000 additional places by 2002, and guidance was issued on such policy issues as widening access, particularly for disadvantaged and vulnerable groups; on the knowledge economy and ICT; on the skills agenda; on adult and adult basic education; and on international activity.

So although there is extra money to correct historical underfunding, otherwise known as Tory education policy, most of the extra is for extra activity. More money to correct underfunding would have been nice, though, and we will still be faced with the fact that many colleges will not be able to fund salary awards comparable with local authorities - no mention of that in Mr McLeish's letter.

But let's not be ungrateful - at least there is extra money for us, unlike our colleagues in higher education. Perhaps most significantly, hidden within the minister's press statement was a promise of a more important role for FE in local and regional development with colleges leading and driving change, rather than merely participating in it. So prepare to move over you LECs, or whatever name you now trade under.

FE, for so long the Cinderella service, may still only be trying on the ballgown, the slippers might seem a bit shoogly and the coach is still half pumpkin, but it looks like we are going somewhere. You can work out for yourselves who the ugly sisters are.

Norman Williamson is principal designate of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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