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'Sort finance or face meltdown'

AoC chief executive David Gibson spells out his spending priorities to ministers and funding supremos

I cannot remind the Government and the Learning and Skills Council often enough that as long as the level of core funding remains as it does, somewhere in the region of half the colleges are operating on year-to-year deficits.

While it takes excellent management and leadership skills to handle this, it gives a public message of poor management. That is the inevitable consequence of tying up so much cash in initiatives and targets.

We welcome the new funds promised and, after nine years, the end of the 1 per cent so-called efficiency savings, but it has not happened yet. Meanwhile, the whole question of core funding is pushing us ever further into crisis.

Charles Clarke's speech in Oxford last week talked about getting resources to teachers. The Prime Minister talks about getting resources to the front line. We need a relationship of trust that enables this to happen in colleges.

Mr Clarke also stressed the importance of secondary education. We have to remind the world of his predecessor Estelle Morris's promise. New Labour has been in for more than five years and we have repeatedly been told to wait.

Well, we have been waiting. We are patient as a sector but that cannot go on. Last year, Ms Morris gave her undertaking that FE funding would be a top priority this year. The Chancellor helped with his decision to roll out education maintenance allowances nationally, which is a tremendous boost.

We also welcome the 1 per cent change. But it is not immediate and, in the meantime, we still have too much auditing and inspection taking valuable time and resources. The lighter touch we were promised three years ago has not materialised.

The Government must tackle this. For a start, reduce the top-slicing of our budgets by the LSC. This happens twice - once nationally and again by the 47 local councils. Give us more direct delegation of funds and proper three-year planning. If the Chancellor's words this summer mean anything, they mean three-year funding with full flexibility to negotiate issues such as pay. Here, we have been unjustly constrained by the 2.5 per cent budget increase this year.

I stressed to John Harwood time and again that this was insufficient. The increase in budget from the Department for Education and Skills to the LSC was 6 per cent, but only 2.5 per cent was passed on to colleges for pay. If ministers and the LSC accept that the need for decent salaries, reflecting professional demands on staff and managers, is a real issue, why not for once pass on the whole 6 per cent? From 2.5 to 6 per cent is a huge differential and a real start on closing the 12 per cent gap with schools.

The genuine part colleges are playing in the struggle for wider improvements in education and training is shown in their response to the 14-19 agenda and consultations on Success for All. There was a genuine effort to consult in all local LSCs, with 359 responses from the sector.

Those consultations revealed that there is not one simple solution to the range of problems but a variety to suit local, regional and national needs. But where are the resources to support colleges in this?

Our research shows that there are 666,000 16 to 18-year-olds in colleges, compared with 405,000 in schools. If the agenda is really about putting the learner first then there is a real message here.

There is a firm belief in the minds of ministers that we ought to separate out young people from adults. But where is the evidence to support this? The great majority of 16 to 19-year-olds are choosing to go to college. Yet the difference between funding in schools and colleges remains at 15 to 20 per cent.

Here, you hit a serious political point, for if the Government is intending to deal with social inclusion it must supply the same volume of funds to colleges as it does to schools. There is no evidence that just tinkering with structural changes will make a difference.

What will make the difference is more money for mentoring systems, pastoral care, one-to-one teaching and other support. Structural change - simply moving people from one building to another - is not the answer.

No one wants a broader, higher-quality education service more than us. A lot of colleges already have widely differing varieties of learning arrangements to suit individual young people.

But we need the resources for better support, for more face-to-face teaching in smaller groups, as well as improved distance learning and IT support.

How many taught hours in colleges are there now compared with 1993? If you look at something like nursery nurse education it was 20 to 30 then. Now you are more likely to find it at around 16 hours.

It is a miracle that things have been achieved in this time and demonstrates that the squeeze on budgets - remaining static in real terms since 1996 - was anything but efficient.

And take the higher education target. We have 50 per cent of young people with five good GCSEs at 16. This rises to 75 per cent at 19, largely because of the efforts colleges are making. The route to increase HE participation is through colleges. They are doing an amazing job: 40 per cent home-to-HE students come through colleges.

Similarly, with basic skills, colleges do the bulk of the delivery, which is going extremely well, yet the major difficulty is to find the resources for good-quality teachers. Also, as ministers have testified, colleges are doing an excellent job with their own workforce development - a key government target.

The Hay Group report on leadership qualities last month said that when you look at the sector's complexity of, colleges are doing significantly better than many top-flight private-sector firms. I think that we are entitled to receive the same resources, recognition and reward.

David Gibson was interviewed by Ian Nash

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