Stand by for yet another year of raised temperatures

The FE sector's burning issues are likely to stay aflame in 2012

While many significant changes have taken place in the world of FE since the early days of 2011, one issue has rarely been out of the public eye: money. Or the lack of it, to be precise.

If you were hoping 2012 was going to be different, you had better think again. And a number of key announcements in the next few weeks should set the tone for the months that follow.

Just four days into the new year, the 16-19 funding formula review consultation conducted by the Department for Education and the Young People's Learning Agency ended. In the light of plans to raise the participation age, ministers believe the current structure is "not fit for purpose". The review "aims to introduce a simpler and more transparent" methodology. Sound familiar?

This has been a commonly repeated mantra, used to justify a host of reforms introduced by the coalition. But for post-16 providers, this review will be crucial. Schools, FE colleges, sixth forms and apprenticeship providers have long squabbled over who loses out under the current system; this review gives the government an opportunity to introduce a level playing field and reduce red tape for providers. Whether it will be possible to keep all the different providers happy is another matter.

January will also see the Skills Funding Agency announce colleges' funding allocations for 2012-13. With ambitious savings of 25 per cent expected by the end of this Parliament, some colleges are expecting cuts of as much as 12 per cent for the next academic year.

Another burning issue for post-16 providers will be the launch of the all-ages National Careers Service (NCS) in April. With Connexions funding being dismantled across the country, the burden will fall on schools, which will be issued with a new legal duty to "secure independent, impartial careers guidance". More details are expected by the end of this month.

Of course, there will be no extra funding, nor an obvious way of enforcing this new obligation. Stories are already widespread about the dirty tricks being used by schools to persuade pupils to enrol in their sixth forms; if anything, ructions between neighbouring providers could become even more pronounced. Further questions about how the NCS will use private and third-sector providers, and the role of local authorities, have yet to be adequately answered.

Another announcement due this month will reveal the latest data on the number of learners entering FE colleges over the last year. With the latest published figures predicting a 462,000 drop in adult learners by 2013 - the year FE loans are introduced - the next set of numbers is likely to make grim reading.

Ahead of the introduction of #163;9,000 university tuition fees in September, the 16-18 learner numbers in FE colleges will be just as interesting. Ucas statistics on applications to higher education qualifications, expected towards the end of January, should give a more accurate picture of the knock-on effects on colleges that offer their own degrees. Many experts have predicted that colleges could see their intake swelled by debt-averse students keen to minimise the amount of debt they collect.

Apprenticeships, another bone of contention during the second half of 2011, look set to generate further column inches. While the explosion in the number of apprenticeships being created has been lauded by FE minister John Hayes, concerns have been raised that, in many cases, an apprenticeship represents either rebadged on-the-job training or an insufficiently rigorous 12-week qualification. While measures to counter these criticisms have emerged from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, this headache for ministers will not be disappearing any time soon.

The spring is also expected to bring the long-awaited review of professional development for FE teachers, which will address the role of the Institute for Learning. The independent review has been ordered by Mr Hayes to take the sting out of the dispute between the institute and the University and College Union over the proposed rise in its membership fees. Since the review began in September, an uncomfortable truce has been in place. But if either party is unhappy with the review's findings, we could see a return to the ill-tempered threats that characterised the first half of 2011.

For the FE sector, 2012 is set to be another enthralling 12 months.

Upcoming events

19 January: Adult education body Niace's conference on raising standards of literacy and numeracy

30 January: University admissions service Ucas will publish final higher education enrolment figures from 2010-11

6-10 February: The annual Apprenticeship Week.

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