IN 1997 it appeared that further education, for so long the Cinderella of the education world, had finally received an invitation to the ball. While the Conservatives had concentrated their attention on schools and higher education, David Blunkett, the new education secretary, was himself a product of FE both as a student and lecturer.
Now after four years in office Labour are seeking a fresh mandate. But despite eye-catching initiatives such as individual learning accounts and the University for Industry, many college budgets remain tight.
At first sight, the Government's figures look impressive. Spending on FE has risen by almost pound;1 billion in cash terms since the last election and is set to rise by a further pound;240 million next year. Investment in FE has recovered from a squeeze in the first two years of the Government and is now 16 per cent higher than it was in 1996-97.
However, the Department for Education and Employment's annual report cast serious doubt over whether ministers really are putting their money where their mouth is. As The TES revealed last month, it suggested that funding per full-time equivalent student was set to fall by pound;140 this year and by 2002-3 would be 7 per cent lower than when Labour took office.
The DFEE was quick to respond. Officials produced a table for the Association of Colleges which, unlike the annual report, includes cash for the FE standards fund, teachers' pay initiative and capital projects. These figures show that far from facing real term cuts in funding per student, between 2000-3 the sector will benefit from a 5 per cent real terms increase in funding.
But if that is the case, why was that not shown in the Government's accounts? The answer lies in two potntially conflicting priorities at the heart of Government. While ministers are anxious to increase investment in FE, they are under pressure from the Treasury to get higher performance for their pounds. Colleges will be expected to deliver efficiency gains of 1 per cent per year between 1998-2003. So rather than trust colleges to spend the money, the eye-catching initiatives are taking the lion's share of the extra funds. And while many lecturers and college managers back the Government's aims, they are worried that colleges' day-to-day budgets are suffering.
"They can't put money in without tying it to a press launch," says Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union NATFHE. He says that means that extra money is not feeding through into improvements in college classrooms or to better pay and conditions for staff. Lecturers are tired of "compromising their professionalism" due to lack of time and resources, he says.
"Money has not gone into restoring cuts in core provision. The core is not only rotting but it has to deliver efficiency gains."
It is a complaint backed by John Brennan, director of further education and development at the AoC. "For many colleges life is now more difficult than it was before," he says. "Because extra money is linked to specific agendas, it is not helpful to existing projects."
He describes the Government's insistence on targets and directed funding as counter-productive. "We would look for significant improvements in core funding from any new government," he said.
Both Mr Mackney and Mr Brennan were, however, quick to acknowledge that this Government has been an improvement on its Conservative predecessor. But despite that and the extra millions flooding into the sector, the Cinderella sector is still waiting for its fairy godmother.