Time to weed out the sacred cows

1st October 2004 at 01:00
People regularly complain about the complexity of FE funding, but little seems to happen. Plan-led funding introduced by the Learning and Skills Council is a step forward, but real simplification can only be achieved if someone is ready to think the unthinkable, grasp some nettles, bite on some bullets and sacrifice some sacred cows. Eight such creatures, long overdue for a cull, are set out below in an easy guide to simplification.

Axe the area cost weighting. Colleges in London and areas of the South-east get extra payments to reflect increased costs, but this generates interminable arguments over the rates to apply and whether or not any college is the right side of some arbitrary boundary. Londoners pay more for their housing and less for their fruit and vegetables than those in other areas of the country. So if FE costs more in the capital, why not just reflect this in the fees they pay?

Dump the disadvantage factor. There is constant argument about what constitutes disadvantage. Some say it is about poverty and others that it is about underachievement. Many would argue that we need to add rural deprivation alongside urban deprivation and all the other categories that contribute to the current factor - so it may be fairer, as well as simpler, to say that everyone is disadvantaged.

Stop the specialist colleges uplift. It's hard to justify paying 10 per cent more for art in an art college than art in a general FE college; and harder still to justify why the uplift stays if a specialist college takes over a general one, but not if a general college takes over a specialist.

The LSC is interested in provision, not providers, so an institutional factor is illogical as well as a complication.

Fund at flat rates. It is not self-evident that the state should pay more for an individual to take a high-cost course than a cheaper one. If we funded all courses at flat rates, and charged differential fees to make up the difference, it would force individuals to choose whether the investment in expensive provision was really justified. If individuals or employers don't value the difference enough to pay for it, it's hard to see why the taxpayer should.

Forget flexibility. Much of the complexity of FE funding arises because it tries to reflect the precise size of a course - anything between three and 900 hours per year. If we only funded standard sizes - say full time, part-time day and evening only - colleges would probably package their provision in standard units to match. Would this really matter? Most products only come in a range of standard sizes and the customer pays more for customised products.

Abandon the achievement element. Linking a small proportion of funding to individual learners' achievements sounds tough, but is in fact tokenism. It complicates the funding mechanism but there is no evidence that it motivates institutions. There is no achievement funding in respect of school pupils under the age of 16 or university students over the age of 18, so why complicate matters for those in between?

Remove retention payments. The retention element generates a great deal of work to make very little difference to funding; and in any event inspection and performance indicators can keep colleges on their toes in this respect.

It has never been obvious why the funding available to teach me should be reduced if my neighbour drops out, yet that is what happens. A simpler system would be fairer to learners.

Pay for provision, not people. The holiest sacred cow of them all is that "funding should follow the learner". Actually, it's much simpler to fund courses than people - there are far fewer of them for one thing - and if colleges run courses with foolishly low numbers, the LSC doesn't have to fund them next year. Funding courses would help damp down some of the competitiveness that breaks out when every learner has a price on their head, and would therefore fit well with the collaboration agenda.

And if these changes don't make it simple enough, we can pack in performance-related funding and standardise additional support and perhaps even challenge the Catholic sixth-form colleges' premium. Reform may not always be popular, but then no one made an omelette without breaking eggs.

Mick Fletcher is a research manager at the Learning and Skills Development Agency. He writesin a personal capacity

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