Time of plenty

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
There is a 10 per cent cash bonus for the new Learning and Skills Council, with similar amounts expected in future years. But more money means greater scrutiny, warns Julian Gravatt

The speed of change about to transform further education is dramatic. It will cause problems for anyone focused on the present. The key announcement in last month's Learning and Skills Council prospectus is that the new funding method will start in September 2001. In not much more than a year, colleges, training providers and adult education will be paid in a different way and under different rules by a completely new network of regulators. A year later, in September 2002, the council will extend its reach to school sixth forms.

But the speed has its own remorseless logic. Why bring 5,000 staff together from the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils and then perpetuate differences for a year by preserving two systems? Why wait to make the necessary improvements?

The new system will have checks and balances. Government ministers started the post-16 review in March 1999, with a commitment to protect the "training infrastructure". Two years on, they have no desire to upset the complex network of provision.

The transition will be eased by growth budgets in 20012. Decisions in 1998 and 1999 give the new council a starting increase of 10 per cent in its first year. In July, the spending review may continue the increases for its next two years.

This is a time of relative plenty. Cash growth started in 1999, following two years of standstill and cuts in college budgets. Before that, there were three years of growth, stopped abruptly by the Conservatives in January 1997. Training budgets have followed similar patterns, but in response to different events. This money-go-round makes it hard for providers to know when and whether to respond, but there are signs that today's plenitude may last longer.

The Government has three main priorities, which it consistently backs with money. Number one is 16-18 standards and inclusion - there is money for students and their parents as well as teachers. Number two is the right sort of adult learning - IT skills, basic skills, courses that help adults returning to learn. Number three is money for projects and initiatives kick-starting change, whether this is raising standards, running summer schools or building a national IT network.

The clarity of the priorities answers many questions but not all of them. The biggest uncertainty is over the lower priority areas. For example, what will be the policy towards courses taken by employed people who study in their own time, independently of their employer? These are partly financed from fees but are mainly funded by the FEFC. That body covers 70 per cent of the costs but assumes the other 30 per cent will be paid by fees. The new Learning and Skills Council will inherit these commitments and, in a time of budget growth, will want to continue them. This could change.

The local learning and skills councils have some powers to wrest funding from individuals, employers or local education authorities. Budget pressures might persuade them to use these. An obvious target will be to change the 70:30 split - perhas to 50:50. Alternatively, the national launch of individual learning accounts on September 1 might be the start of a new approach to funding adults - but then, again, it probably won't.

All bets are off, except the cautious one. The first priority in the transition will be consolidation. The time for more radical change will be after the next election and after the third Treasury spending review in 2002. If you're in work and there's a night class you've always fancied, sign up now - or, at least, before 20034.

A more immediate change may be a new approach to qualifications. External ones have spread at all levels and now govern funding. But we could be at the top of a wave. The millions taking exams this month show there's still some force in the surf but it could be breaking. The desire to assess learners and teachers is being checked by increasing dissatisfaction over the process and what it does to planning and funding. This dissatisfaction - prevalent in colleges since 1993 - has led to experiments with alternatives.

The FEFC has been given the chance in its last two years to fund adult learning outside the approved Schedule 2 list, while the Employment Service increasingly disregards the list when designing New Deal programmes for unemployed clients. Why buck a flexible labour market by taking a long time to train people for short-term jobs? Better to train quickly, then re-train for the next job.

Meanwhile, the University for Industry is investing millions in online learning, which includes assessment but not certification. The hope is to make tests online or on demand. Baroness Blackstone provided official support for a revised approach in the Lords in February. Responding to an opposition amendment to the Bill, she confirmed that learning and skills councils would have the power to fund uncertificated learning.

The purpose of the clauses on qualifications would be to ensure that public funds to awarding bodies represented a "sound investment for the future". The focus is on controlling the expenditure, not the income. The implication is a shift away from the current system, where qualifications determine budgets. In the new model, local plans will.

More flexible funding rules for adult learning will be a big change in direction. Providers will need to focus more on job and progression when designing courses. Awarding bodies may need to focus more on the added value from their qualifications. And the QCA may need to change its approach towards approving qualifications.

Just as the funding for adult learning loosens its link to qualifications, the screws on the national framework are being tightened: flexibility on one hand, control on another. The result may be to drive more qualifications into the private sector, which is where the most valuable certificates generally are. If a certificate doesn't get you a job, a pay-rise, progression or an official off your back, then what's it for?

It may be a record of a significant achievement and valuable for that, but if the national framework becomes little more than wallpaper, then adults won't pay for it. Nor should the state.

Julian Gravatt is registrar of Lewisham College, south London. email:jgr@staff. lewisham. ac.uk

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