Was there ever a time in the world of post-16 funding when there was more anxiety and apprehension ahead of a spending review? The college sector had been repeatedly told to ‘model’ projected cuts of 25-40 per cent and rumours abounded of a cut (an oft-mentioned 10 per cent) to the £4,000 base rate for 16-19 year-olds. So if many were expecting George Osborne to unveil an unstoppable army appearing on the horizon, destroying our post-16 sector, or at least removing those isolated colleges and schools that dared to stand alone, what picture has actually emerged?
At first glance a collective sigh of relief can be heard as we view the scale of the army. It doesn’t seem to be nearly as big as we had anticipated. The 16-19 rate will be protected in cash terms and, even more unexpectedly, so will the core adult skills participation budget. In addition, sixth form colleges can save on VAT costs by becoming academies and there is even a slush fund to help push through the recommendations from the area reviews.
We all knew about the increased funding for apprenticeships so once the college sector re-groups and has its slice of the apprenticeship cake, surely the impending army coming over the hill can now be faced with renewed confidence. Perhaps the post-16 sector does not have to just circle our wagons and try and survive, but push forward and try to actually thrive?
Unfortunately, this optimism is likely to be short-lived. If we look closely there is a mist swirling around the army on the hill and when it clears we may see things that we don’t like. In this analogy the mist is the smallprint of Osborne’s statement.
There will be ‘targeted savings’ in 16-19 funding which will come from declining demographics (most forecasts show decline at least until 2020) and also savings from ‘outside’ the base rate – Peter Mucklow, we await your letter to the sector explaining this with interest!
Sixth form colleges cannot just convert to academy status overnight, count their savings and withdraw from the area reviews. They will probably need to join a multi academy trust (MAT) in order to be eligible for conversion so that they can share good practice, contribute to system leadership and raise local standards (and also help hit government targets for academy conversions). It is simply naive to think this is about helping cash-strapped sixth form colleges in order to be equitable.
As for the ‘protected FE adult skills budget’, this is likely to include the replacing of grant funding with funding instead coming from loans for 19-23 year-olds studying at levels 3-4. So, how will the product be differentiated from foundation and full degrees in order to persuade young people to pay for these alternative technical qualifications? Ultimately, will the students take these loans out?
Regarding the salvation from accessing more apprenticeship funding, this will surely depend on how the employers will view the market. It is possible they will view training providers as more suitable partners than the reeling and re-grouping colleges. Will the organisations to whom colleges previously sub-contracted out part of the training, now turn around and bite the hand that once fed them?
For now, though, we are surely allowed to at least draw breath and survey the horizon with a slightly more positive eye. We will know more when the mist has finally stopped swirling, but we have to feel that at least we have been given a bit of a fighting chance.