Rational discussion needed to protect further education and skills

By Julian Gravatt on

This week if you thought about government policy and colleges, it's probably area reviews that took your attention. They are important because they could change the college landscape in the next few years. However if you want to know who the new, stronger colleges will be teaching and training, how many people they'll be employing and what else they'll be doing then it's the Spending Review you need to think about.

In the 10 weeks between now and 25 November, Ministers, officials and advisors will be engaged in frantic work to help the Treasury find £20 billion in savings and reshape public services. The Treasury has raised local government expectations by inviting devolution bids. Every one of these I've seen so far asks for control of the skills budget in the short-term and college 16-18 funding in the long-term.

In the Association of College’s submission, we've taken a different tack. We've looked at the Treasury's targets for savings of either 25% or 40%, discussed what has happened in the last six years of austerity measures and then set out 10 proposals to improve post-16 education and save money in the long-term.

We struggled to work out how the Government can save £6 billion from this area in the next four years. But we considered savings are possible by closing small sixth forms, reforming public sector pensions, tackling the national addiction to qualifications and extending further education loans. At the same time we identified areas of post-16 education that cannot stand further cuts without having serious consequences, for example 16-18 funding levels. We express caution about the short-term savings that are possible from area review inspired mergers or from devolution. We encourage the Government to speed ahead with a 0.5% apprenticeship levy on all large employers but not in a way that involves a pound-for-pound withdrawal of its own funding.

We also suggest two necessary system reforms: longer-term funding agreements and a joint Department for Education and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills strategy to increase the number of maths teachers. 

Dealing with funding cuts is a challenge.  But it is made more difficult by the way in which the Government uses one-year allocations, makes regular changes to funding formulae, introduces new programmes, ratchets up expectations and makes other decisions which add to college costs.  The Spending Review will set Government budgets to 2019-20.  There is no reason why it should not be able to confirm the spending envelope for further education and skills for the same period.  This would allow for colleges to plan their provision and seek to meet the needs of their local community and employers over the full period.

The Spending Review started months ago and will end well before Christmas. Ministers are prisoners of some daft manifesto promises that will constrain their options. I live in hope that there'll be a rational discussion of the options the Government faces and a clear understanding that the combined impact of multiple spending cuts on certain parts of the UK education and skills system could be very damaging in the long term.

Julian Gravatt is the Assistant Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges.