More cash and more students, but did Labour really further FE?

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
Further education has come a long way since 1997 under New Labour. Yet while funding, student numbers and quality are all higher than they were 13 years ago, is the sector and the people it serves and employs any better off?


It is difficult to compare precisely the budgets back to 1997 because then the Further Education Funding Council funded far less than its successor body the Learning and Skills Council.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the FE budget has increased significantly under the Labour Government. The FEFC's total budget stood at just over pound;3 billion in 1997 compared to the LSC's budget for participation in 200910 of just over pound;10 billion (total expenditure pound;12.2 billion).

More instructive, perhaps, is the proportion of colleges that are judged financially weak, struggling or vulnerable. Here the story is one of steady improvement followed by a recent deterioration of the situation.

In 1997, 57 per cent of colleges were classed as financially vulnerable or weak. This proportion had jumped from 30 per cent in 1994.

At present, according to accountants KPMG, around 50 general further education (GFE) colleges, 22 per cent of the total, are struggling financially. Within this number, however, only a handful will have acute financial problems.

However, KPMG expects the position to change as cuts in public funding take effect. The accountant estimates that a further 50 GFE colleges could become vulnerable, perhaps slipping into the struggling category in the next three years. This would take the combined proportion of struggling and vulnerable GFE colleges to about 43 per cent.

So, while there has been a period of sustained improvement in the financial health of colleges over most of the past 13 years, recent economic events are set to undermine many of the gains made.

Adult learning, of which more below, bears the brunt of the latest cuts, with adult learner responsive budgets being cut by 16 per cent on average this year and by more than 20 per cent in some colleges.

It has not helped that, even before the latest cuts, many colleges had already taken a financial hit due to the unravelling of the capital funding programme for colleges. Again this is a story of considerable investment - some pound;4 billion from the LSC since 2001 - followed by a sudden loss of funding that has left colleges millions of pounds out of pocket.

If there is a silver lining then it is that further education is in far better shape in terms of the quality of management, including financial, it can call on in the face of the challenges ahead.

In 200203 the Adult Learning Inspectorate found that one in ten colleges had inadequate leadership and management, a situation that had been broadly similar in preceding years. By 200607 just four per cent of colleges were judged by Ofsted to be inadequate.


Between 199697 and 200809, the number of FE teaching staff rose by around 7 per cent from 131,000 to just over 140,000. Total staff numbers rose from 218,000 to just over 268,000, up about 17 per cent.

Figures indicate a dip in teaching staff numbers between 1997 and 2006, falling from 131,000 to 118,000. Over the same period, total staff numbers rose by just 5 per cent from 218,000 to just over 228,000. A significant amount of the growth in staffing therefore occurred between 2006 and 2008.

Given that there are around 100 fewer colleges today than there were in 1997, the increase in staff numbers indicates a significant expansion of the amount of provision delivered by the FE system - albeit that more is delivered in fewer and bigger colleges.

A crude calculation of the ratio of students (see below) to teaching staff in 1999 produces a figure of 18:1. Repeating the exercise with 2008 figures produces a ratio of some 34:1.

The story of FE pay over the past decade brings bad news. According to the University and College Union (UCU), FE lecturing pay has increased by 23 per cent since 1999, rising from pound;27,707 to pound;34,090 in 2009. But the increase in average public sector pay was 48 per cent over the same period.

While FE teaching staff were paid considerably more than secondary teachers, who averaged pound;24,607 in 1999, by 2009 the situation was reversed, with secondary teachers averaging pound;36,837, up by nearly 50 per cent.

The lecturing pay scale was modernised some four years ago, which reduced the number of points from 15 to eight. This brought about higher starting and end points plus fewer promotion steps. But a number of colleges are still to implement the scale, an issue of ongoing industrial action for the UCU.

The UCU has calculated that principals' pay increased by 56 per cent between 2001 and 2009, from an average of pound;76,506 to pound;119,482.

The FE teaching workforce is significantly better qualified than it was a few years ago. In 200203, 74 per cent of part-time and 86 per cent of full-timers were qualified or enrolled on a relevant teaching qualification. By 200809 these proportions were 91 per cent and 92 per cent respectively.


The total number of students in English colleges stood at 2.4 million in 1998. This rose to 3.9 million learners in LSC-funded education and training in 200102 and to almost 4.8 million in 200809.

Some of the growth was due to the increase in 16 to 19 provision, up from 650,000 in 200102 to 1.07 million in 200809.

A lot of it was due to work-based learning provided through Train to Gain, with numbers on the programme rising from 32,000 in 200506 to 957,000 in 200809.

Train to Gain has resulted in the awarding of more than a million qualifications to adults. However, critics say that many of these qualifications would have been paid for by employers and that they are often accrediting skills that people had already.

And despite the boost to adult numbers delivered through Train to Gain, total adult learner numbers have declined significantly in the past few years.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), the adult learning champion, says that the total number of adult students dropped from 4.49 million in 200405 to 3.07 million in 200708, a decline of nearly 32 per cent. The latest statistical first release puts the figure for adult learner and employer-responsive adult education at nearly 3.8 million.

Much of the decline in adult numbers is due to the fact that the courses offered through Train to Gain and apprenticeships take longer to complete, meaning that fewer students are recruited overall.

Success rates across FE have improved consistently over the 13 years. Notably, colleges achieved a success rate of just under 81 per cent in 200708, which meant they exceeded the 201011 target set them three years ahead of schedule. It means that eight out of ten learners achieve the qualifications they set out to achieve.

The success rate for apprentices was just under 71 per cent in 200809, easily beating the target of 65 per cent.

Between 2001 and 2007, 2.8 million more people gained basic skills through FE, meaning that the sector hit its target three years early.

  • 22%: Proportion of general further education colleges struggling
  • 25%: Difference between rise in FE and average public sector pay 1999- 2009
  • 32%: Drop in number of adult students between 200405 and 0708.

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