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.

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.


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

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.