The Liberal Democrats have passed a motion that would give FE colleges an extra £1 billion of funding per year.
The motion – Education is for Everyone: Investing in Further Education and Learning Throughout Life – was passed at the party conference in Bournemouth today and will campaign to end the deficit in FE funding by giving colleges funding parity with schools.
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Proposing the motion, Layla Moran, the party’s spokesperson for education, said the “narrow, rigid template” given to students today of working hard to achieve academically, before proceeding onto university, did not happen for everyone.
“While this story could well be the template for a great life, it could also be misleading, and even potentially damaging. Because life doesn’t often work out this way, and when it doesn’t, our education system simply struggles to cope,” she said.
Pointing out that two out of five FE colleges are in deficit, she said it was “time we ended the divide between schools and colleges.”
The motion also called on the government to extend the pupil premium to students up to the age of 19, as “disadvantage doesn’t end in year 11”, she said.
The party also committed to ending the policy of compulsory resits in GCSE English and maths as a “condition of funding” for FE study. Students who did not gain a standard pass of grade 4 in GCSE maths and English could instead take a free numeracy or literacy course more suited to their needs.
And it called for sixth forms and FE colleges to be reimbursed for the VAT they pay whilst providing publicly-funded courses.
Ryan Bate, Liberal Democrat councillor for Grappenhall, said: “As a secondary school teacher, it is a real relief to see the proposal to change the requirement on GCSE English and maths in order to access future training.”
He said the need to “pass that arbitrary threshold of a grade 4 at GCSE” was a “source of huge stress” to young people and their teachers.
The motion also called on the government to introduce a universal Personal Education and Skills Account (PESA) for adults in England. It would be tax-free, like an ISA, and the government would make three deposits of £9,000 in total into an individual’s PESA account when they turned 25, 40 and 55 to ensure people can change career more flexibly throughout their working lives.
The motion draws on an independent report into lifelong learning by Vince Cable.
“Liberal Democrats have always been and will continue to be the party of education but this must be for everyone at any age,” Ms Moran said.
Many speakers at the conference gave personal accounts of how adult education had assisted them.
Charley Hasted, Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for Eltham, said: “Lifelong learning has been a passion of mine for a very long time. In fact, the point when it became a passion was when I finally got to university, after having had to repeat a year of secondary school due to ill health and bullying.”
They had then returned to school to take their A levels, joining university as a mature student. “I’m insanely proud of that,” they said.
“I went to Staffordshire University, I walked into the library, and on the wall it said, ‘This college was established to skill the miners of Stoke on Trent.’ This was back in the 1800s, and they were recognising the value of lifelong learning for people from marginalised backgrounds with very little opportunities and saying, ‘We need to educate people.’ And if we can do it then, we can do it now.
“Lifelong learning provides a lifeline to disabled people who have had to miss parts of their education due to ill health, a lifeline to LGBT young people, who have been estranged from their families and have had to go out and get jobs and learn to be adults long before they should have had to learn.
“It would make such a difference to so many people.”
Vince Cable, former Lib Dem leader, said: “Continuing education has a wonderful past and a wonderful future, but a broken present.
“My parents are amongst those who left school at 15 to work in factories, and they got their education at something called night school.”
He said his father taught York bricklayers how to build houses in an FE college, while his mother taught visitors to York Minster about medieval art and architecture, all through continuing education.
“There’s something deeper that lies behind the funding, the prejudices and the assumptions that people make,” he said
Mr Cable added that there may be some people who think adult education is "for bored middle-class housewives to learn pottery".
But he said: “It [adult education] is basically about giving people a second chance, and that second chance is currently barred to many of them by the ridiculous restrictions which Michael Gove brought in as education secretary, around English and maths as a compulsory barrier to overcome before you can go on to further learning.”