A new regime for funding further education aims to address inequalities, says Sheila Drury
Changes are seldom comfortable, even when virtually everyone has agreed the status quo is crying out for a strong current of fresh air.
In a few weeks time Wales will mark the beginning of the end for an unequal and underachieving system of post-16 funding that has long since reached its sell-by date.
Inevitably nervousness sets in and various players in the network worry out loud about what the future holds. They argue that change must bring winners and losers and, on current form, they feel the odds are against them.
In reality the future is far more exciting and positive than they will allow themselves to believe. Wales is investing more than pound;3 billion in this sector of education up to the year 2010 with the aim of making that money deliver more and better learning for more people than ever before.
Education and Learning Wales (ELWa) outlined details of the forthcoming national planning and funding system (NPFS) at this week's meeting of the National Assembly's education committee.
The system begins a dual running year on July 31, during which learning providers will continue to be financed under the existing arrangements but will be given an indication of how the new set-up would affect them.
Following a year of consultation and further fine-tuning, the system will go live in August 2005 - with all the necessary safeguards.
It is an ambitious undertaking for Wales but the rewards for the learner will be great. For a start, by introducing a common Wales-wide funding mechanism across all post-16 sectors, except higher education, we will begin to sweep away an entrenched but unfair postcode lottery. Providers from some areas are receiving nearly twice as much funding as counterparts elsewhere for delivering exactly the same learning.
Transparent and equal funding, with appropriate weightings for differing local circumstances, will allow us to plan coherently with providers and stakeholders to meet local, regional and national skill needs and develop a quality framework to bring all learning among schools, colleges and work-based training providers up to the standard of the best.
It will give us the basis for a new era of collaboration between different branches of post-16 learning in order to deliver more choice for learners locally and better value for taxpayers nationally.
We are already seeing this happening around the country. For example, in Cardiff and Deeside, many A-level students have been able to take extra subjects because local schools and colleges agreed to pool resources and create a common timetable to give them more choice.
Uniform funding gives us a structure within which a new credit and qualifications system can operate - encouraging more people to build their learning in bite-sized chunks and truly adopt the habit of lifelong learning. Some school sixth-form representatives have expressed concern that the new system is designed to channel resources away from them towards the FE sector and that they will lose out. The NPFS would bring their method of funding into line with others but sixth-formers will gain rather than lose from new arrangements, particularly as part of the wider collaborative networks.
Others have dubbed the system a recipe for falling standards across the board. Not on your life. With a new quality framework now being developed, standards will be top of the agenda for ELWa and all providers in the years ahead.
This system has been five years in the making. In 1999, the broad-based Education and Training Action Group (ETAG) probed the funding for post-16 sectors. They discovered a multiplicity of unco-ordinated providers, duplicating effort and competing against each other with no identifiable benefit to the learner. The group recommended a unified framework to integrate the planning, commissioning and resourcing of all publicly funded post-16 education and training.
From its inception in 2001, ELWa has been working to make this transparent level playing field a reality. We have been driven by the conviction that the status quo is not an option.
The number of people in publicly funded post-16 learning in Wales has now reached more than 350,000 and a combination of demographics and Assembly incentives means the figure will keep growing. Given finite budgets, we have got no choice but to act now to get more from our investment, so we can meet this growing need.
For example, how can we justify a "funding fog" which results in one area receiving only pound;2,772 per A-level student while another gets pound;4,394, particularly when 85 per cent of school costs - teachers' salaries - are set nationally? Similar disparities have existed in the cost of training modern apprentices in different parts of the country. This needs to be put right.
However, change will come gradually to avoid disruption for learners. Where special circumstances exist, for example with Welsh-medium or rural schools, extra funds will be given, and regular consultation will take place with local stakeholders as part of the planning process.
NPFS will be demand-driven, and change in local learning networks will be influenced by the needs of local learners.
Sheila Drury is chairman of the post-16 learning body, ELWa
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