The unkindest cuts

22nd May 2015 at 01:00

Here we go again. One of the joys of getting older - along with arthritis and an increasing sense of irrelevance - is that nothing is new any more. Whatever life flings at you, you've experienced it before, generally more than once. Sometimes this feels like more of a curse than a blessing: you are doomed to watch as the same mistakes are made again and again.

I'd hardly got started in further education in the late 1970s before I found myself in the middle of a conflict over cuts. These particular cuts were locally rather than nationally driven, given that the favoured FE budgeting model at the time was that of the drunken sailor: spend hard until nothing is left and then look around and wonder where it has all gone. Regardless, the effects were the same for those of us on the front line; we were in a fight to preserve courses and classes and save our jobs.

Since then, this process has been repeated many times. Periods of standstill or modest growth, followed by a Judgement Day scenario of slashed budgets, axed classes and slim brown envelopes containing P45s for teachers who thought they had a job for life.

And now it is happening again. Teaching and admin staff at my workplace, along with thousands of others across the country, are being told that their jobs are on the line. Management teams and union representatives are eyeing one another suspiciously and wondering where it will end. But like two bald men fighting over a comb, neither can be a winner.

Why? Because in austere times the government has looked at education spending and done what governments always do - it has taken the easy way out. Schools and universities have loud voices and powerful supporters, but FE has neither. Budgets have been slimmed, trimmed, squeezed. Then, in February, came the coup de gracirc;ce. Adult education - the soft underbelly of the soft underbelly - had almost a quarter of its funding wiped out overnight.

Now that the Conservatives have come roaring back into power, can we look forward to anything better in the future? Not a hope. There was a lot on education in their manifesto, but only a couple of platitudinous paragraphs on further education - apprenticeships, blah, blah, blah - and nothing at all on adult education. But then, as they appear to be working towards making adult education disappear, perhaps that's not surprising.

Would a Labour government have been any better? You can look in vain at the 700 words on education in their election manifesto, because not one of them is about adult education.

Will, as the Association of Colleges has warned, this cruellest of all cuts really lead to the death of adult education? Probably not. Yes, many lives that could have been transformed will have to carry on as they were. But surely some shreds, some remnants, will survive.

But then who's to say that the wheel won't turn again, and that another government somewhere further down the line won't take the soft option and decide to finally put gasping, moribund adult education out of its misery?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London

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