Colleges are an investment no party can avoid

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Joseph Lee

The surprising thing is probably how restrained the pre-Budget report is, bearing in mind that the Government is widely regarded as dead men walking. Given just a few months to live, the temptation to pass around bad cheques knowing that they would never catch up with you must be hard to resist - and yet what we have is not exactly a spending spree.

It may look rather too much like one to the opposition parties, however. George Osborne, shadow chancellor, emphasised the long-term consequences of public debt. "Every family in the country is going to be forced to pay for years for this Prime Minister's mistakes," he said.

It is not just arguing for the narrowly partisan interests of further education to say that places in colleges and schools for teenagers are an investment we cannot afford to dodge, not a luxury or an election stunt. This is more, not less, true in a time of recession, since keeping teenagers in education rather than letting them join the dole queue vastly increases their chances of success throughout their life.

And if the drop-out teenager is to be abolished by statute with the raising of the compulsory participation age, the least that he deserves is that every extra student should be properly funded.

The Learning and Skills Council's plan to end transitional rates worth hundreds of pounds more per student for the lucky few in order to pay for more places is also welcome, although there's no good reason why it should take a crisis to end the simple injustice of huge gulfs in funding between most of FE and the schools fortunate enough to benefit. One hopes also that when the fabled green shoots of recovery do at last break through the soil, it will not simply be an opportunity for schools to resume making hay while colleges clutch at straws.

But the commitment by the Government to resist the easy headline of merely protecting schools funding and to give at least a small increase to all 16-18 provision over the next three years is a welcome surprise, and it is perhaps a measure of colleges' growing status and voice that they do not find themselves excluded this time.

Pressure is now on the Conservatives to make the same commitment, as they already have done for schools funding. It would be a waste of a historic moment in the raising of the education participation age if it was paid for at the expense of quality.

Joseph Lee, Reporter, FE Focus, E: joseph.lee@tsleducation.com.

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