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Hard lessons for adult learners

For years, this Government has made news out of spending announcements.

Large numbers have been quoted in speeches. Budgets have been turned into soundbites. The same figure has been announced, repeated, subdivided and announced again.

This time it's different. On September 16, Education Secretary Charles Clarke made a written statement to Parliament on his spending plans. He made a long-awaited spending review announcement with no fanfare. No press release. No mention of money in the speech made that same day. Nothing.

Making announcements to Parliament will keep the speaker and traditionalists happy. Ministers have got into trouble for putting the interests of the press ahead of Hansard. And with Parliament back in session for only one week after a long summer break, there was no time for much of a speech on the subject.

So a written statement it was. A device that could be used to bury bad news was used to give out some good news. A total of pound;8 billion more for education and skills must be good news, mustn't it?

Then again, perhaps it's not surprising that the Department for Education and Skills wanted to keep the written statement low profile. The headline increases are impressive, but it's impossible to follow the figures to earlier announcements. A table of figures always helps.

Colleges occasionally get criticised for their management, but they could never get away with this. Unlike the department, colleges do not have the luxury of drawing up strategies without costs attached. Unlike MPs, college governors generally require the numbers in budgets to add up to the total.

The best news in Mr Clarke's statement is for children, their parents and those involved with universities. Between now and 2008, the department will open hundreds of new children's centres and invest in early-years education. It will also invest in maths teaching and build new schools, and match-fund the new stream of fee income that universities will get after 2006. Spending per child and per university student will rise in a bid to raise quality. Schools and universities will have money to spend on more staff and higher pay.

The news for young people and adults is more mixed. The budget for the Learning and Skills Council will be in excess of pound;10bn by 2008, but this still may not be enough to fund courses for the people who want to learn.

Here, the statement is curiously silent. There is no indication of how the money will be used. While schools and universities are promised increases in spending per student, colleges aren't promised anything. Will the new money be used to recruit more students or raise quality?

Part of the answer depends on events, but some things are known in advance.

There will be more 16 to 21-year-olds in the population. Back in July, Charles Clarke told MPs that coping with demographic pressures was his biggest challenge in this spending round.

The extra government money for universities will help them maintain quality as they take on more students. The extra government money for colleges will help them with the higher numbers, but not much more.

The direction in which colleges are expected to grow is pre-determined and won't be news to anyone. Government will expect colleges to enrol tens of thousands more 16 to 18-year-olds in the next few years. Targets prescribe the need for hundreds of thousands more adults on basic skills and level 2 courses. The costs of this will quickly eat up the 5 per cent annual increase in the LSC budget and leave not much left.

Moreover, protection for school sixth-form funding and the policy to let them grow will only add to the financial pressure. Government gets less for its money by expanding and protecting school sixth forms, which means less for everything else. Future funding prospects for adult learning look bleak.

The 2004 spending review is the last before the next election. The Government has confirmed its priorities. A political choice has been made to spend the money from the Treasury on childcare and universities.

Schools come first in policy terms, but will take a diminishing share of the extra money because there are fewer pupils. There's a budget boost for 14-19 learning, but this will be directed to schools ahead of colleges.

Cash will be available to secure qualifications for low-skilled adults, but not for the rest. Money will also be diverted into new initiatives like adult apprenticeships and the employer training programmes.

Ultimately, the majority of adult learners will face the prospect of higher fees and less choice. Colleges will face a rocky road ahead and will think carefully before making the long-term investments needed to modernise their buildings. Extra government spending on staff development is welcome, but will be no substitute for competitive pay rises.

These are the Government's plans for the future but, like all plans, they are subject to change. The challenge for colleges between now and 2008 is to take the initiative and show that if they had more, they could do more.

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

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