Another view - Students will pay the price for skills council's failure to add up

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

Like many in further education, I have been following the saga of the missing millions at the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) with a mixture of fascination and incredulity.

It is as much a credibility gap as a financial one. The LSC may be in its dying days, but how could it have managed to leave more than 100 colleges stranded with re-building programmes underway but no cash to complete them?

As I say, I have been following the story. But now I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't really the other way around, and that the story isn't following me. It began one morning in the early summer when I tuned into the Today programme on Radio 4. Instead of John Humphries hectoring some hapless politician, he was interviewing the principal of my college.

Given that FE normally gets about as much coverage in the mainstream media as the Mongolian nose flute championships, I realised that something of moment was happening. Of course I knew that my college was in the middle of a huge re-building programme, with around pound;100 million worth of work either underway or in the offing. Now suddenly all that was under threat - as it was for dozens of similar schemes across the country. It seemed that the LSC had promised far more funding than it actually had the cash to deliver.

The interview certainly sounded alarming, with phrases like "possible bankruptcy" and "running out of money" flying around. In the end the college came out of it all right - getting both the money to complete the new build and an extra slice of funding to refurbish existing facilities.

A couple of months down the line, I have discovered that my involvement in the debacle may not be limited to my current place of work. In a curious new turn, the funding crisis may also lead to the closure and demolition of my old school. As I went there every day for seven years between 1960 and 1967, I feel a certain sense of attachment. In fact, I have a double involvement with the place. It was also where my teaching career began when I led an evening class there in the 1970s.

The school is in Ashford - not the big town in Kent, but the dormitory suburb near London's Heathrow Airport. Soon after I taught there it became Spelthorne College, a sixth-form college specialising mainly in A- levels.

In 2007, nearby Brooklands College took it over and subsequently put in for some of those millions of pounds apparently held by the LSC in its Building Colleges for the Future fund. Under a project costing over pound;90 million, the Ashford campus was to be completely redeveloped.

Then came the shock news that no more money was available. Brooklands, having already spent more than pound;9 million in preparatory work, was plunged into financial crisis. Its preferred remedy was to close the Ashford site from July 2010, ending the A-levels programme entirely, and shifting the remaining vocational courses back to the main Weybridge campus.

For Brooklands it is clearly a blow from which it will take some time to recover. But for the teenagers of Ashford, Staines and the surrounding area, it's a disaster. A big slice of educational provision will simply disappear. Many students will be left stranded halfway through their A- levels. Efforts are being made to find them alternatives, but as of now, no one knows how successful they will be.

No doubt I will get over the loss of my old school. But the same can't be said for the thousands of young people whose educational prospects will be blighted by it. They, it seems, are likely to become a part of the human cost of the LSC's spectacular failure to get its sums right.

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