How can we measure funding if we use different rules?

Education is a small world, particularly at the top, so there is no doubt that from time to time Roger McClure, finance director of the Further Education Council, and Sir Ron Dearing, who headed the review of 16-19 qualifications, will have exchanged pleasantries.

If further education is to have any chance of recovering its spirit, however, it is essential that, like the farmer and the cowboy in Oklahoma, this accountant and postman get their acts together.

Development work is already under way following the Government's acceptance of the Dearing Report. At the same time, a fundamental review of the FEFC funding methodology - originally designed by Mr McClure - is taking place. Unfortunately, however, there seems to be have been no dialogue between the two groups, and the speed of the latter review makes it likely that they will continue to proceed on separate tracks.

During the past two years, I have worked with senior managers in a cross-section of colleges, trying to establish how best to manage the curriculum within the constraints of the funding methodology. As a result, I am all too well aware of some action that needs to be taken if the FEFC's review is to have any value.

Even after three years of operation, only two-thirds of qualifications are listed and based on the new "units of activity" - created by the FEFC - while the rest are measured in course hours. Similarly, while forecasting is undertaken in units, significant monitoring of activity still makes use of the concept of student hours.

This has two effects: the scope for confusion continues, particularly among staff who have to manage courses and programmes at the chalk face, and the partial reliance on hours-based calculations means that those who don't want change can still believe that nothing has really altered.

All this would matter less if it were not so central to the business of managing course delivery and student programmes, and if it were not likely to hinder the general post-Dearing thrust. If more flexible student programmes are to be developed, offering more varied combinations of GCSE and A-level, general national vocational qualifications and national vocational qualifications, all funding must be based on the same language. Continued translation between units and hours will not help.

This leads on to the main requirement of the funding review from the curriculum management standpoint: the need to accept subsets of qualifications - and, indeed, units themselves - as legitimate qualification aims.

Full-time students need to be able to follow programmes that combine, for instance, NVQ units with GNVQ core studies. Indeed, without this, the applied route will not have the option of a vocational slant that many need.

Funding for part-time students, however, should be calculated in terms of relevant NVQ costs.

Colleges are either having to develop parallel Open College Network accredited units, which can be funded, or are putting them in for courses they know they will fail, simply to attract the FEFC cash.

The latter approach means that course managers calculate the cost of a part-timer as a percentage of a full-time student. When the student has completed the work they need, they "drop out". This is the sort of thing that brings any system into contempt.

Greater use of "units of activity" in relation to funding will help to make programmes more flexible, but this change must take account of the cost of time for action planning and for tracking. Simplifying requests for the latter would help right across the board. There will also be implications for class sizes, as greater choice will increase the cost of provision. It is no good pretending it won't happen, just as inspection data sometimes ignores inconvenient problems such as the fact that groups of 28 students are likely, for good educational reasons, to be split into two less cost effective groups of 14.

The funding revision should also consider curriculum-related matters such as the need to accept a smaller number of units at foundation GNVQ level and a greater degree of support. Perhaps the weighting system should consider vocational areas and levels of qualification. Parity of funding for the integration of key skills across all three pathways should also be considered.

Indeed, the FEFC and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications need to insure that there is proper and active discussion on many other problems that are coming to light over the funding and curriculum reviews.

FE is a small territory, and if it is to survive its folks must certainly stick together.

Noel Kershaw recently retired as principal of Yeovil College

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