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Jamie Oliver ate our money

School meals boost leaves cupboard bare for colleges. Ian Nash reports

The Jamie Oliver-inspired school meals initiative has put paid to any chance of new cash for colleges in the near future, say senior officials at the Learning and Skills Council.

Tony Blair personally backed the celebrity chef's call for better school dinners which led to an extra pound;280 million boost to spending on them.

This and other school initiatives have left little scope for extra spending elsewhere, David Russell, LSC director of resources told FE Focus.

Mr Russell repeated the council's warning that spending would be extremely tight next year, as the LSC published the final budgets for colleges. Those figures confirm the picture painted in June when the college principals expressed fears of a crisis in adult education.

The figures this week show a slight improvement in funding for FE which will rise by 4.4 per cent (compared with the 4.3 per cent predicted in June). The cuts for adult courses are slightly less than expected but will still be around 2.9 per cent.

Mr Russell has said things will be even tougher next year when the overall rise for the learning and skills sector will be just 2.2 per cent. "That is below the level of inflation." With funding demands from young people rising by 8 to 10 per cent, money for other education would be in very short supply, he added.

"We are not optimistic about more money. You have only to look at what the Government has done since it came in. The Secretary of State put a huge amount of money into improving school meals and extending school hours.

These are very worthy policy aims but they have probably mopped up any surplus in the department (for education and skills) and we are not expecting that ministers will pull a rabbit out of the hat for next year.

They have the hat but not the rabbit."

However, Mr Russell defended the adult education cuts this year which, he said, were unavoidable. "If the budget is fixed and other parts are covered by ministerial guarantee or requirements of 16 to 19-year-olds other areas have to give," he said.

"Nearly pound;2 billion is going to adult education and this cut of around 3 per cent is the first cut for four years. Interestingly, the number of adult learners has been going down while we have been pumping more money in.

"It is because the colleges have seen the priorities in the white papers and there has been a trend towards longer courses promoting skills." Such courses would not be cut, as money for courses leading to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications would still be guaranteed, he said.

In an effort to create greater funing transparency, the funding figures released by the LSC this week are the most detailed ever published. They give a breakdown of the relative cash gains and losses in all nine regions.

Mr Russell said: "The overwhelming message from principals on the consultation roadshows for the Agenda for Change was that they wanted more information. And they wanted it put in the context of spending over the past four years."

He promised that consultations would start this September on future funding and that colleges would be given at least a year's notice of any changes.

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