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The Autumn Budget - some useful initiatives but short of what is needed

22 November 2017

Today's Autumn budget comes at a tricky time for the government in its negotiations with the European Union (EU). The UK wants to move the negotiations onto discussions about trade and the future relationship. The European Union (EU) council will decide in mid December 2017 whether sufficient progress has been made on the exit fee, on citizen's rights and on the Irish border. The reason why this matters in a discussion about the budget is because what happens with Brexit will determine what happens in national politics and in the economic forecasts which underpin all the figures. The risk is that a bad outcome from the negotiations could knock the economy and public finances sideways in the next 18 months. With this as a context, it is no surprise that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, took the course of a pretty boring budget. There are lots of detailed announcements on tax and public spending but very few big decisions. He allocated substantial sums for the NHS, housing, transport, Brexit preparation and tax freezes on fuel duty and alcohol. To pay for this he scheduled a number of tax measures but also agreed some more public borrowing than was planned in his earlier budget. The net giveaway rises to £9.9 billion in 2019-20. The fact that the government's target to bring the budget into surplus was pushed back from 2022 to 2025 has given the Chancellor some headroom to deal with some immediate politically challenging issues. In the circumstances, it is positive that there are various new programmes to tackle skills but disappointing that they are relatively small and create an impression of adhoc initiatives rather than a longer term plan. Perhaps we will get a different impression once next week's Industrial Strategy is out, when DfE publishes its consultation on T levels and when the different maths and computing initiatives are looked at together. For now, the Treasury statement promises £20 million here for staff development on T levels, £48.5 million there to improve GCSE Maths resit performance, £76 million for the National Retraining Scheme and an unknown amount of money to increase enrolments on A level and Core Maths courses. A longer list of announcements affecting colleges is elsewhere on our website. Anyone connected with 16 to 19 education will be disappointed at the lack of recognition of the serious and growing problem of underfunded sixth forms. Our joint campaign with the SFCA and school organisations will continue to shine a light on this issue but we need DfE to review the realistic costs of a high quality curriculum. Today's Treasury announcements show that government accepts the case that more money can make a difference. It is, however, a question of scale, properly analysing the situation and taking the right action. The Autumn budget falls short of this when it comes to post 16 education. Julian Gravatt, Deputy Chief Executive, The Association of Colleges The implications of the Autumn budget for colleges will be one of the topics discussed by Julian and other speakers at AoC's Winter Finance Conference on Monday 11 December in London