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End demands the means

The minister for skills, Ivan Lewis, claims there is enough money in the system to fund fully adult basic skills provision, and to ensure these priority learners are not turned away on grounds of affordability (FE Focus, Letters, April 2).

He goes on to say that the Government wants all such learners to go on to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) and higher level qualifications. Colleges certainly welcomed the funding increases announced in the 2002-06 public spending settlement, amounting to pound;1.2 billion to 2006, a real-terms increase of 19 per cent.

However, it should be understood that most of this money was allocated to funding growth as well as to meeting increases in unavoidable costs such as pensions contributions.

For most colleges, the actual increase in 20034 is only in line with inflation, and over the full period to 2006, the increase in real resources per student is no more than about 5 per cent. Looked at another way, subject to the achievement of further demanding targets, most colleges will receive an extra 2.5 per cent in both 20045 and 20056, with a few receiving up to 3.5 per cent for outstanding performance, and the least successful receiving inflation increases only. With the recent Budget announcements, the gap between schools' and colleges' unit funding stands at 10 per cent.

Within this very constrained unit funding, there is insufficient money for the growth needed to meet all the targets which government has set for improvements in the nation's skills.

Mr Lewis says that funding for young people and adults with basic skills needs is guaranteed, which means that funding for other learners, including level 3 learners, will be rationed.

Already, colleges are having cuts made to their bids for growth in adult learner numbers, including work with level 3 learners and employers - the Association of Colleges estimated in November that 70,000 places will be lost this year. If colleges want to serve these learners, they will either have to put up their fees - perhaps by 300 per cent - or face losses.

But is there really a guarantee around basic skills provision for adults? One way of limiting demand is by tightly defining what colleges are allowed to fund. Many colleges are already faced with cutting their outreach basic skills provision to the most vulnerable, since it is now categorised as low priority for the Learning and Skills Council.

There are more 16 to 18-year-olds in education and training than there have been for 15 years. The LSC has been required to put this group first and doesn't have enough money for adult skills. In previous years, the LSC has relied on some colleges missing their targets so that it could pay for extra students in others. In fact, more colleges are delivering more. The result is a budget crunch for the LSC and pressure on colleges to cut back.

AoC has put before ministers a carefully costed bid for 2006-08. The sector will require an extra pound;1.9bn to meet the demands placed on it.

If the Government really wants a national skills strategy, it has to deliver the means.

John Brennan

Chief executive Association of Colleges

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