Editorial - Some small change for FE bursaries is not a lot to ask

2nd March 2012 at 00:00

Further Education is, we are endlessly told, the "Cinderella sector". So what does that make those who train future FE teachers? The Cinderella sector of the Cinderella sector, presumably?

Perhaps this is the reason for the striking lack of coverage last week of the announcement about the new FE bursaries, which will be available from September to those considering a career in colleges (pages 50-51).

If anyone had cared to look, they would have found something risible. Derisory even. They would have found, dressed up in political platitudes, that the bursaries are way too small.

Some 10,000 of the 20,000 or so students trained specifically for the FE sector every year are to be offered #163;1,000 to help them stay afloat while they undertake a one-year course likely to set them back #163;6,000-8,000 in fees. Another 1,000 will be offered #163;1,500 to train to teach English or maths.

Perhaps surprisingly, FE minister John Hayes seems to think that these offers are impressive. "It is a powerful demonstration of the government's wholehearted commitment to the FE and skills sector that, despite the current financial pressures and in challenging times, we are looking to secure the talents and skills of potential FE teachers," the minister said. "Recruiting the best talent is central to making the sector as good as it can be."

Let's look at these two statements. First, that the offers are a "powerful demonstration" of a "wholehearted commitment" to FE. How can I put this politely? No, they are not. They are a demonstration of the way that ministers think they can get away with treating FE. If you do your back-of-the-fag-packet calculations, you will find that the bursaries represent an increase of just #163;1 million on what is currently on offer - #163;1 million that is supposed to mitigate to some degree the effect of rocketing tuition fees. In the grand scheme of education's overall budget, this is the shrapnel you might find down the back of Mr Hayes' ministerial sofa.

Now the second part. "Recruiting the best talent is," he tells us, "central to making the sector as good as it can be." As a good Conservative, and a committed believer in the market, Mr Hayes does not need me to point out that one of the best ways to recruit good people is to compete in the area of remuneration. And the proposed bursaries simply do not do that. They do not even compete with mainstream teaching, where the government is trumpeting the fact that many trainees will receive up to #163;20,000 for their one-year PGCE.

In fact, there is a strong case for bursaries in the FE sector to be higher than those dished out to school trainees. It is essential for the health of our colleges that those teaching the vocational qualifications at which they excel should be professionals who have been there and done it. Imagine deciding on a mid-life career change that would leave you without a salary for 12 months while you rack up a debt north of #163;10,000. Those mortgages don't pay themselves.

But that would be to get way ahead of ourselves. As it stands, simply suggesting parity of funding between schools and colleges will get you treated as if you've taken a lance to a windmill or two. Best stick to attempting to talk Mr Hayes into having another rummage under his sofa cushions.


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