Trying to understand why nothing bloody works

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Why don't we care that the further education budget has just been cut by 20 per cent?

The Adult Skills Budget, which funds all non-academic education for those 19 or over, is being cut by a fifth between now and 2015-16. The least we can do is pay attention.

Further education colleges offer a dizzying array of different courses, for a huge range of students. Photo: Getty

Imagine that, one morning, Michael Gove cheerily announced that he was cutting a fifth of all funding to schools. Imagine the outcry. Imagine the angry articles, the protest marches, the endless, abysmal stock photography of kids standing outside locked school gates and crying.

I’m sure that you can picture all that, and that you’re salivating at the prospect even now, but it’s all irrelevant because you and I both know that, short of a full-on, Greece-style meltdown, it’s never going to happen. Schools may find themselves squeezed but their funding is, basically, safe. They’re too important. We care too much.

Now consider the fact that, on Tuesday, the government actually did cut 20 per cent from an education budget. The Adult Skills Budget funds, essentially, all non-academic education for those 19 or over: everything from apprenticeships to college courses to skills training for the unemployed. This week, it emerged that it’s being hacked back by £460m between now and 2015-16.

This time, though, there’s been no angry media commentary; protest marches have been conspicuous by their absence. In fact, David Hughes, the chief executive of adult learning charity NIACE, told the TES (one of the few publications to report any of this) that the settlement “could have been worse”.                                                                      

If Hughes seems blasé about the kind of cut that, four years into austerity, would make most bits of the public sector squeal like a donkey, it’s probably because he’s used to it. Further education (FE) gets repeatedly and painfully stiffed – and that pain is shared pretty evenly between privately-owned training firms and your friendly neighbourhood FE college.

In case you’ve missed them, which you probably have, here are some of the other challenges facing the world of further education.

Its funding is terrible.

According to figures compiled by the Association of Colleges (AoC), average per student funding in higher education is around £8,500; in schools, it’s £5,600. In FE, though, it’s £4,000 for 16-17 year olds, and just £3,800 for those 18 and over. Some of these teenagers are doing the exact same qualifications as their mates down the road at the school sixth-form: colleges just don’t get as much money to teach them.

Its funding is getting worse.

School revenue budgets have largely been protected from austerity; university funding has been slashed, but the resulting hole has been filled with student fees (paid for with loans from, oh look, the government). The FE budget, though, has been raided repeatedly. In 2010 it was cut by £1.1bn, or a whole 25 per cent. In June 2013, another £260m went. This meant that the adult skills budget had been cut by a whole third since the last election; still, the AoC described the second cut as “not as dire as anticipated”.

Its buildings are crumbling.

Labour’s Building Colleges for the Future programme imploded in 2010, when it turned out that the quango responsible had agreed to fund projects worth (this is a good bit) £5.7bn more than it could actually pay for. The coalition has generously offered an extra £550m to help sort things out, but this is pennies when compared to the actual scale of the need, and colleges with ambitious building projects have generally been forced to seek private finance.

From 2015, though, those seeking capital funding have been told they can talk to the Local Enterprise Partnerships between councils and business about getting a share of the new Single Local Growth Fund. In doing so, though, they’ll be competing with every other college in the area, as well as anyone else who wants to provide vocational training. This will obviously sort everything out.

It’s dealing with problems schools have failed to solve.

Following the 2011 Wolf Report, FE colleges are required to ensure that every student who doesn’t have grade C or above in their English and Maths GCSEs has another chance to get one: that means recruiting a lot of extra teachers, who may or may not exist. So to make sure colleges are properly motivated, the government has told them that, for every student without the grades who isn’t taking such classes, they won’t receive any funding. Not a single penny. Colleges are effectively being told to deal with schools’ failure on pain of poverty.

Getting the picture, yet? Ministers may inflict all sorts of wheezes on schools and universities, privatising their funding, being mean about their workforces, handing their back office services over to any passing outsourcing firm. But at least they grasp that they’re important. At least they think that they matter.

Further education, though? Short of a few quid? Need to find some easy savings? Just nick it from the budget of the nearest FE college. Who’s gonna care?

I have a theory about why this might be, but I don’t like it, because it says, basically, that it’s all my fault. The reason, I think, that FE colleges are an easy target is because the British chattering classes – the media, the politicos, the wonks, and the sort of people who read broadsheet newspapers – don’t understand them.

And the reason for that is that we didn’t attend them. If you find yourself caring about education policy for a living, then there’s a fair old chance you did A-levels and then went off and did a degree. You know what a school looks like. You know what a university is. Those things you instinctively get.

FE colleges, though, don’t fit into this nice, easily-grasped structure. Most offer a dizzying array of different courses, for a huge range of students: academic ones, vocational ones, basic skills for those who struggled in school, bits of apprenticeships, bits of professional training, and the odd bit of night school for anyone who happens to want it. The acronyms alone are enough to make your eyes glaze over. So, we ignore them. And nobody much seems to care.

Thing is, though, an estimated three million people study in FE colleges in any given year: one in 20 of the entire population. And if there’s a link between skills and growth, as everyone and their dog thinks there is, then it might conceivably be a good idea to start taking an interest in the bodies that do most of the up-skilling.

The 1944 education reforms that introduced secondary moderns and grammar schools were also intended to create a third type of establishment: technical schools, providing vocational skills training on the German model. But these mostly failed to materialise, in large part because the middle classes didn’t want their kids to do vocational subjects. That same bourgeois indifference is now allowing the government to repeatedly slash a major part of the country’s education system, without inspiring the slightest murmur.

I’m not saying we can easily fix this. But the least we can do is pay attention to those cuts. I’m game if you are.