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Seize this opportunity for growth

THERE was so much political noise in the run-up to Tuesday's spending review that some might dismiss the whole process as pre-election spin. This would be a mistake.

Ignore the vocals and listen for the bass. The review gives clear signals about the future funding of colleges, learning and skills.

The headline increase of 5.6 per cent in real terms in education and training spending is expected to raise total UK spending in this area from pound;38 billion to pound;49bn over the next three years.

Education spending rises faster than overall spending (which goes up 3 per cent a year in real terms) because the Government has made savings elsewhere.

Between now and Christmas, ministers and public servants will divide up these headline billions.

In September the new national Learning and Skills Council - which will oversee all post-16 education and training outside colleges and universities from April 2001 - will become the first post-16 institution to find out its budget.

It will divide this up between its local councils by November. If all goes to plan, providers will have provisional budgets for 20012 by the year-end.

Spring 2001 will see negotiations and further change. The LSC at all levels will want early results while honouring commitments.

Expect just as many opportunities to make growth bids in the next 12 months as in the last.

The spending review was light on detail about individual budgets but it does contain new information about overall targets for education and training.

These will be the basis of the Public Service Agreement between the Treasury and Department for Education and Employment. There are three targets for the Learning and Skills Council: 80,000 more 16 year olds in education and trainingby 2004; 60 per cent achieving level 3 (A-level equivalent) standard by the age of 21 and a significant reduction in the number of adults with poor literacy and numeracy.

The target for higher education aims to raise participation to 50 per cent of the 18-30 year old age group. One delivery method will be the new two-year foundation degrees.

It's a formidable list but an important one. There are fewer targets than in 1998, but they are more precise and intended to bite.

The government is determined to to "eliminate variations in performance" and to focus particularly on bringing disadvantaged areas up to national averages. Failure to meet targets at all levels could lead to penalties.

Finally, there are the short-term announcements about additional money.

The pound;365m growth for 20012 announced by Malcolm Wicks in November has now blossomed to pound;423 million: pound;8m extra for 16-18 education and pound;50m for pay increases in sixth-form colleges and FE.

This budget transfers to the new Learning and Skills Council and will be combined with others coming from the training and enterprise councils and local government in the process described earlier.

Responsibility for adult unemployed training transfers to the Employment Service, who will continue the New Deal on a permanent basis. No money needs to transfer as the windfall tax on utilities will fund the New Deal until 20023.

The sums are complicated and the process obscure but one thing is plain: there is growth money available. Colleges either use it or lose it.

Julian Gravatt is director of policy and administration at Lewisham College.

Julian Gravatt on what happens next and what the Chancellor's extra milllions will mean on the ground for colleges

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