A great year for security guards

Julian Gravatt

Four weeks ago, the Government launched a new financial plan for the Learning and Skills Council. The LSC itself published a more detailed document called Priorities for Success, which added numbers and implications to the policy statements.

Those governing and managing colleges have read and analysed every word.

One month on is a good time to assess what it means for them and for everyone else.

First, it is nice to have a strategy. Priorities for Success is the clearest statement of its sort for a long time. The LSC finally has a strategy that explains what it will and will not do. Budget constraints have forced tough decisions from ministers, which they have not ducked.

Budgets are deals, and this LSC budget is no exception. It promises to deliver higher government targets, despite a slowdown in spending, in a way that can be sold to various audiences. Colleges are promised growth in some areas and a move towards a fairer way of funding 16-19 learning to soften the blow of adult learning cuts.

Employers get their national programme - now called Train to Gain - on their terms as compensation for funding cuts to short courses. Young people and those with few qualifications stand to gain; others face higher fees.

So much for the politics. The big question is, will it stand? The LSC needed a shorter list of priorities to help it restrain spending. After four years in which its budget rose by an average of 10 per cent a year, the Department for Education and Skills wants to keep the increase to less than 4 per cent.

There have to be questions about the feasibility of these plans and, sadly, the LSC does not supply a sensitivity analysis. When colleges return financial forecasts to the LSC, they explain what might happen to the figures if their assumptions turn out not to be true. What might the LSC say if it carried out the same exercise on Priorities for Success?

The big concern must be over-spending on 16 to 18-year-olds. There is an interesting new policy to obtain "value for money" in the funding of 16-18 programmes. Proposals are floated to cap the funding that will be paid for each school sixth-former and to match this cap to those applying to colleges.

Earlier, in its Agenda for Change plans, the LSC proposed an even tighter cap on funding per student for 2007-8. This is an important change of direction, which follows years of encouragement to increase teaching hours.

Controlling expenditure in this way will have consequences for intensive sixth-form programmes, but it has to happen to make the LSC's sums add up. This, in turn, will place hard decisions back on colleges. Do they pay heed to the new funding policies or do they carry on recruiting students and running courses for which they cannot claim funding?

The adult learning budget poses different problems. A large increase in the fee assumption allows the LSC to cut the funding it pays for courses, but this could simply result in more closures.

A forecast that 500,000 places will be lost translates into about 1,500 per FE college, with reductions focused on short courses, first-aid and qualifications that don't count in targets.

More than pound;200 million will be cut from adult learning spending by 2007 to make room for more basic skills and the new Train to Gain programme.

There is a logic to this transfer, but it's an odd sort of logic. Public money is being taken away from qualifications that individuals and employers want so that it can be spent on level 2 qualifications that they often don't want. This helps the Government to ration public funds and meet targets, but will it achieve the wider goals of raising productivity and addressing social exclusion? We will see.

The timing of the LSC budget deserves attention. The cuts to adult learning are front-loaded to 2006-7 because this is the way the DfES set the budget.

Expect the LSC staff to take a tough line on funding allocations to colleges and work-based learning providers.

Meanwhile, various reviews are signposted covering everything from learndirect courses to English for speakers of other languages. One purpose of these reviews will be to make further savings for 2007-8.

So what does all this mean for the woman in the college corridor? If she's a sixth-form teacher, it's not brilliant but it could be worse. If she is a student, then higher fees might mean that she won't be back unless she's well-off or younger than she looks. If she teaches adults, then it better be basic skills or she should get her car serviced.

The classroom of the future is the student's workplace. Finally, if she - or more probably he - is a security guard, then I have good news: the new world involves more intensive use of premises in the daytime and fewer colleges open in the evening.

Cheer up! - you could be home in time for EastEnders.

Julian Gravatt is director of funding and development of the Association of Colleges

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Julian Gravatt

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