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London college weighting shelved

Plans to take cash from regional colleges to provide extra funding for the capital have been put on ice. Ian Nash reports

Plans to give every college in London up to Pounds 1 million a year extra have been postponed following an outcry from colleges across England who would have faced big budget cuts to foot the bill.

The Further Education Funding Council was expected to agree a recommendation favouring the capital at its full council meeting last week. But instead, it put off any decision until at least the end of next month.

In addition to the London weighting decision, a string of measures affecting cash for colleges next year were agreed. The London move was proposed as a way of meeting the alleged higher than average costs in the capital.

The council has abandoned the complex funding formula which had forced colleges to bid for up to one-tenth of their budgets annually. It has called for a more detailed review of funding in line with recommendations from an inquiry by Baroness Helena Kennedy to help widen participation in FE.

Part of the Pounds 83m new money from David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, will be used to buffer colleges against the ravages of inflation and cuts elsewhere. And a new investigation is under way to see how more cash can go to below average spending colleges without hitting the rest of the sector.

The package of proposals was welcomed by colleges as the first fruit of reforms made possible by the Labour Government. But they want to see more radical measures, including cash targeted at rural deprivation.

The council was at pains to point out that it was not giving in to any one lobby or interest group, particularly on the question of switching cash to London.

A lobby of college principals with substantially rural interests had pressed home the arguments against the extra cash for London. They argued that research supporting the proposals from the FEFC London Costs Working Group drew on invalid comparisons with pay in the finance sector. They also criticised the FEFC for failing to consult wider.

Geoff Hall, FEFC director of programmes, agreed this week that there should have been more detailed consultations. "The weight of opinion that we had not done what we normally do, and consult on reasons for our decisions openly, was well made. We had not shared in detail the evidence available but we will now share it with the sector."

The council is now inviting comments on the changes proposed and will review its plans at the next full council meeting on January 29. He denied that the evidence considered by the FEFC had been limited to particular groups. This would be made clearer in the coming weeks.

The London weighting row had provoked more anger than anyone in the council had expected. Raymon Kenny, chair of governors at East Devon College, warned that "it would spark a rebellion". Eleven principals in the West Midlands wrote in protest to council chief executive David Melville.

Andrew Middleton, principal of Stamford Colleges and a member of the London costs groups, was outspoken, arguing that not all the relevant information had been considered before "penalising" the country to pay extra to London.

This week he said: "I am pleased to hear that there will be consultations and an opportunity for the sector to examine the evidence supporting any recommended increase in London weighting."

But he insisted there should be no question of other geographical areas paying the bill if the FEFC decided next month that it would go with the London decision.

* One of Europe's largest FE colleges will be created if a proposal to merge two Birmingham colleges gets the go-ahead. The East Birmingham and Handsworth merger proposed for next yearwould create an institution of more than 34, 000 students, close to the size of Sheffield, currently thought to be as the largest in Europe.

Roger Ward faces MPs, page 16

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