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Go easy with all the usual complaints

Nadine Cartner explains why college managers support the Charlotte Group but David Forrester, below, says politicians will only listen if we stop whingeing

The pages of FE Focus are alive with protests about cuts in Learning and Skills Council funding for adult further education. These cuts are undoubtedly biting on some colleges: 25 per cent or more are suffering real-terms reductions in their budgets for 2005-6.

Even in the majority - whose overall funding is up because their mission relates mostly to younger students or to priority adult categories - there is the prospect of reductions in cherished areas of adult learning in the next few years. It is understandable that many of those affected or concerned should form an alliance. I admire its choice of name (Charlotte Street is associated with better taste than Russell Square) but not the group's strategy.

When the independent FE college sector was created in the early 1990s, it was meant to respond to employer-led vocational market demand. Sadly, too many FE colleges' traditional employer clients disappeared or took their business elsewhere. So, driven by growth-related targets and funding, colleges grew to meet individual and community demand for less vocational courses instead.

The FE sector lost its way. Successive government initiatives since 1997 have been directed at trying to find it again. It was a key part of the rationale for setting up the LSC that there should be a shift of funding towards planned and employer-related skills development, and away from individual market-driven adult education.

It is a key part of the philosophy of the present Government - shared by most in the education world and open to principled rejection least of all by those in FE - that more resources should go to those who have had least, and greater contributions sought from those who have had most.

Successive white papers have stressed the now-familiar priorities: young people, basic skills, the free first level 2 (GCSE grade A*-C equivalent) entitlement, and level 3 (A-level equivalent) vocational courses in priority sectors.

The Charlotte Group's watchword will be "evidence". The evidence base for these priorities and for the implied switch of funding in support of them is strong: in 2002, the UK had the highest proportion of 30 to 39-year-olds enrolled in education of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country. Latest OECD figures show that with 22.9 per cent adult participation in education or training in 2002, the UK already comfortably exceeded the EU average of 7.9 per cent, and the Lisbon target for the EU in 2010 of 12.5 per cent.

But we fall well short of our main competitors in each of the areas identified as priorities. Funding these priorities is hardly arbitrary. But it may be subject to unintended consequences.

Thus, it is right to increase the funding for 16 to 19-year-olds to ensure quality and access - but not if that means forever tracking the increases for schools characterised by a significant minority of uneconomic but popular small sixth-forms. The consequence is that one full-time 16-19 place now may pre-empt the resources of 20 average part-time adult students.

It is right to protect the FE unit of resource, but not if that means there is no LSC funding for adult courses outside plans or over target. Colleges should be able to get marginal cost funding for these from the LSC and exercise their freedom (encouraged by ministers frightened to raise the national fee tariff) to meet the bulk of the costs of such courses by fees.

In return, however, it is equally reasonable for employers and the Government to look for a faster and more effective response from colleges to the skills strategy - for example, by making their employer-led centres of vocational excellence more of a reality and more central to their strategies.

These are changes the Charlotte Group should promote if it is not to be dismissed as a providers' lobbying group. Let there be no whingeing poms this summer.

David Forrester is an independent consultant and an FE college governor. He was director for further education and youth training at the then Department for Education and Employment, from 1995 to 2001

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