This is the first year that the Government has published two separate further education investment strategies - one for 16 to 18-year-olds and the other for those aged 19 and over. The difference in approach between these strategies is stark.
The funding allocated for 16 to 18-year-old learners will marginally increase in England, with the funding rates remaining static. Conversely, colleges delivering courses to those aged 19 and older, often in the same classroom as the 16 to 18-year-old, are being offered a 10 to 25 per cent allocation reduction, with funding rates reduced by a minimum of 3 per cent.
When investment is squeezed, young learners should be prioritised, but what is perhaps most surprising is that the largest funding rate reductions have been targeted at those courses attracting some of the most vulnerable learners aged 19 and over.
As announced in its Investment Strategy, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will be reducing the funding rates by 14 per cent for all numeracy, literacy and English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) qualifications, with the exception of numeracy at entry level 3. Once the 3 per cent funding rate is reduced for all courses, and the fee contribution rises to 50 per cent for Esol learners, this will result in a funding rate reduction of up to 27 per cent.
The funding rate reductions, particularly to the Esol courses (many of which are to be funded at half the rate for literacy and numeracy), will hit large and successful urban colleges hardest. These colleges, already coming to terms with a 10 to 25 per cent cut to their allocated funding, will be paid up to 27 per cent less next year for delivering the same provision as in the current year. As a result, many courses are likely see a reduction in the volume of teaching support and some courses may shut.
Aside from simply needing to find savings, BIS's rationale for picking on numeracy, literacy and Esol courses is that since the launch of the Skills for Life strategy in 2001, capacity and quality has increased to such an extent that the existing funding rates are now too high. If this is the case, BIS should publish the evidence. For example, in 2006 research consultants were drafted in to review the rates for IT qualifications, leading to the publication of a 52-page report and the increase and decrease of some rates.
Naturally, one sympathises with the pressure that BIS faces to find savings for 2010-11, and the reduction in funding rates, as opposed to even deeper funding allocation cuts, should go some way to protect learning opportunities.
However, it is unclear that rate reductions targeted at courses for some of the most vulnerable learners, with "a view to further reductions", is the best or fairest solution. For example, why not scrap the complex addition of premium funding for short courses, or review the rates for other courses, such as the 72 per cent weighting for those in equine studies?
In the absence of evidence to prove that Skills for Life is over-funded, introducing a 27 per cent rate reduction for courses supporting some of the most socially and economically disadvantaged learners does not seem a sustainable way to build Britain's future.
- Nick Linford, Funding consultant and author of `The Hands-On Guide to Post-16 Funding'.