With growing rumours that around 50 FE colleges are in financial difficulty, Lynne Sedgmore considers why the sector has been is so badly troubled while schools appear to be unaffected

Politicians of all parties regularly commit themselves to closing the academic-vocational divide or to raising the status of technical education to the level enjoyed by academic programmes.

They are no doubt sincere, but discrimination against the vocational route is so deeply ingrained that, without intending to they constantly act to reinforce it.

Two items of recent news illustrate the indirect discrimination that so often undermines our leaders’ fine aspirations.

The first piece of evidence is a rumour circulating in the sector that around 50 FE colleges are in serious financial difficulty.

If it were five colleges the responsibility would, in all probability, lie at the door of local management — for 50 colleges to experience serious problems at the same time, however, suggests a systemic problem.

College management has not suddenly deteriorated in dozens of colleges; something has gone wrong with the strategic leadership of the sector; leadership beyond colleges.

It is not difficult to find the major cause. Many colleges were encouraged by the Skills Funding Agency’s predecessor body, the Learning and Skills Council, to take on ambitious capital redevelopment programmes.

The very competitive environment set for the sector has been another spur to invest in improved buildings in order to maintain recruitment.

Since colleges have to finance a major part of their capital development themselves many have high borrowings and now face a ‘perfect storm’ as funding rates have been repeatedly cut for 16 to 19-year-olds in recent years and funding numbers slashed for adult provision.

It is the very students following the technical and vocational programmes that politicians say they want to promote who will bear the toughest consequences.

The second piece of evidence is that academy schools have been stashing away billions of pounds building up their financial reserves — £2.5bn that could have been spent on education according to the Guardian (Guardian online January 18).

School budgets are protected by a ring-fence which does not apply to those aged 16 and over and of course schools don’t have to contribute to capital development in the same way colleges do

Once again this is not a criticism of individual schools, but a system failure. For a local authority to hold a reserve in case one of its schools faces a catastrophe is prudent policy. For every single school to hold a reserve in case it is the one where the catastrophe happens is a gross waste of resources.

Such waste is of course only possible because of the more generous funding received for pupils under the age of 16 — some £5,600 for 15-year-olds compared to only £4,600 for 16 and 17-year-olds and £3,800 for those aged 18 according to the Association of Colleges.

School budgets are protected by a ring-fence which does not apply to those aged 16 and over and of course schools don’t have to contribute to capital development in the same way colleges do.

They also receive favourable VAT treatment denied to sixth form colleges for teaching exactly the same age group.

A common refrain from the political class is that the British public (though not they themselves of course) has a long standing cultural prejudice against the vocational route.

It could of course be that the public takes its cue from the politicians noting where they put their investment and which institutions they starve of resources as an indication of their true values.

Or it could be as simple as a canny preference for sending your children to a school that has cash in the bank rather than a college where the bailiffs are just around the corner.

If politicians and leaders of the skills and education system are genuinely serious about the importance of vocational education, we in FE want to see real evidence of sensible investment, within limited resources, for colleges.

Nothing can justify, other than ideology, billions of pounds effectively being stashed away from the students most in need.