How Gordon can sort out funding

11th November 2005 at 00:00
The current funding crisis is well aired in these pages. It results from the success of providers in meeting public policy priorities. When Labour came to power in 1997, with "education, education, education" as its three top priorities, the Prime Minister's concern clearly lay with school funding and performance. But for David Blunkett the mantra included a need to make lifelong learning accessible to those previously excluded.

Providers responded impressively to widening participation and, after the hair shirt of Labour's first two years, money increased, and participation grew.

The Achilles heel, throughout the Government's eight years in office, has been the overall volume of investment by the private sector, and in particular by medium and small-sized businesses; and in the British disease of investing more in those who have already had the benefits of extended education.

It is now 15 years since the Confederation of British Industry first complained of "the long tail of underachievement" in the UK economy - yet it is the comparative paucity of business-funded training that keeps the UK well short of the norm in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league tables of overall investment in post-compulsory education. The Skills Strategy sets out to address that concern, but like every government initiative for the past quarter of a century its approach depends on the voluntary participation of employers, and in my view, overall, it isn't working. Much of the take-up of the employment training pilots so far has been by firms already training - in some areas 80 to 90 per cent of the public funding just displaces money employers were spending previously, or would have had to to meet new statutory requirements.

Meanwhile 46 per cent of the 1.3 million workers in the National Health Service still get fewer than two days training a year.

With that background, and the impending impact of demographic change on many sectors of the economy, it seems short-sighted to cut public provision for adults. Yet the Learning and Skills Council has little choice, since it has a cash limited budget, and the numbers of expensive younger students are rising, for the next two or three years, and one school based 16-19 student displaces 10 part-time adults. So, providers' past success in meeting government goals to increase participation will lead over the next couple of years to a million or more adults losing their places. The policy may lead to the books being balanced, but it will surely lead to outcomes which are not in the public interest.

What is striking is how the Government responds to this problem compared with its approach in other areas. Take school dinners - and the pound;280 million found overnight, in response to the policy failure exposed by Jamie Oliver's television series. Look at foot and mouth, which was a crisis that had its roots in the de-regulation of the meat trade, and the lowering of health standards in the Eighties and Nineties. Faced with a problem that blew a hole in the budget of the Department of the Environment, the Government properly stepped in and found the money. Or take the deeply unpopular, and questionably legal, adventure in Iraq. There, billions of pounds are found, at short notice, and in excess of the Ministry of Defence's budgets, to fund the war, and its chaotic aftermath. That expenditure flowed from the misplaced belief that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. Extraordinary, then, to read reports which suggest that a further pound;20 billion will be needed to pay for a replacement for the UK's own weapons of mass destruction - even though we shall have no independent use of them. What foot and mouth and Iraq have in common is that events made clear that public funding was inadequate to meet the need - just as budgets in post-school education are clearly inadequate to meet the range of learner demands on them now. Surely the sensible thing to do is to find short-term money from Treasury reserves?

As finances are tight, here are two suggestions on where to find money from in the longer run. Recognise that employers respond to regulation - and make investment in staff development a pre-condition for trading in Britain. Contribute to arms reduction, and give a boost to the UK economy and to civic harmony by shifting that pound;20bn ear-marked for nuclear weapons to create the infrastructure for a really world-class education and training system for all ages. Both measures are practicable - so, Gordon, why not announce them in your pre-budget statement?

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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