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FEfocus Editorial - Bursary net won't catch the poorest

We cannot be sure how severely students at general FE colleges will be affected by the allocation of cash for the Government's new bursaries (page 1). The worrying thing is that the Government cannot be sure either.

It is in the nature of the FE system that students do not follow a predictable path. They choose what they study and when, the market decides who grows and who declines, and consumers are not forced to conform to the expectations of a producer-led cartel - it is, in its way, a Tory dream.

It is also the enemy of tidy minds, and there are few minds tidier than that of a civil servant. Whether the bursary allocations are a problem or a crisis will depend on how far the tidy minds are right about the behaviour of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds. Civil servants, if they have anticipated the problem, are betting that most of them have a smooth transition into FE, without a break in their studies.

The Young People's Learning Agency says that students will be eligible for the transitional money even if they change course, as long as they do not break off their studies altogether. In that scenario, colleges will probably manage to scrape by with their allocations for new entrants.

But how likely are the habits of Kevin the Teenager to live up to the expectations of Sir Humphrey? Since the transitional funding was only announced in March, there is every chance that many of them made a rash decision about their education before they could possibly have known the consequences.

If they dropped out in November, having chosen the wrong course, and then hope to start a new one next year, they do not fit into the plan. Nor if they studied in school last year at 16, quit to look unsuccessfully for work, and intend to start a one-year college course at 18 this September.

These students will not be picked up by the transitional protection, and are not fully accounted for in the bursary formula. Students with less direction are more likely to have come from deprived backgrounds, and are most in need of financial support.

It is a subtle point, but one that may well affect several thousand young people, who will be clamouring for help as the autumn term begins. Unfortunately, it is not the sort of thing that gets attended to in a government department which has embarked on a blitzkrieg of change.

The timescale for implementing the new bursary system has been impossibly tight, exacerbated by one U-turn over the amount of funding already. As Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, points out, it is only 70 days from the start of term, which is no time to be wondering if your system for allocating student support is fit for purpose.

The complexity of systems, like FE, that leave people to their own devices can be mind-boggling. It's one reason that the party of free marketers is also the party of conservatives. Change too many things at once and an intricate system can be undone in ways that could not have been foreseen.

But a Government obsessed with Tony Blair's remark that he wished he had increased the pace of reform is not very conservative-with-a-small-c. The maxim goes that you can pick two out of fast, cheap and good. This Government, in education policy at least, seems to have bet everything on fast and cheap.

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