As the countdown to the general election approaches the two-month mark, Mick Fletcher assesses the early FE and skills sector battleground of ringfencing.

For some time now it has seemed that there is little difference between the main political parties in respect of FE policy.

They are all in favour of apprenticeships, keen on English and maths, and give rhetorical support to removing the academic vocational divide.

They all talk of devolution, are keen on new types of institutions like University Technical Colleges and assert, without presenting too much evidence, that FE colleges need reform, with specialisation the answer.

As the general election approaches, however, some important differences are beginning to emerge.

In the last couple of weeks both Labour and the Conservatives have set out their overall strategy for education finance.

The Conservative proposal is to maintain funding per school pupil in cash terms — ie it will ignore inflation, but take account of growth.

The Labour proposal is to maintain funding levels for schools in real terms — ie adjusting for inflation, but apparently ignoring growth in pupil numbers.

Sam Freedman, head of research at Teach First, has calculated the difference is not great. On reasonable assumptions about inflation, the Conservative cut could amount to 10.5 per cent over the life of the next parliament and the Labour cut 9.5 per cent.

After years of real growth in school budgets either would be hard.

Whether college budgets are protected depends on what happens to apprenticeship funding — and that is where another difference seems to be emerging

An important difference however is that Labour explicitly sees the 16 to 19 budget subject to the same sort of ringfence, while the Conservatives would stay with the current policy, which excludes post-16 work and has therefore seen sixth forms and colleges bear the brunt of Department for Education (DfE) cuts. So while Sam is probably right that there is not much difference for schools as a whole, schools with sixth forms and post-16 providers would appear to benefit more from the Labour stance.

This is amplified by the fact that over the next five years the total number of 16 to 18-year-olds is set to fall while those aged five to 16 will increase substantially.

There will clearly be pressure within DfE to respond to changing demographics and the Conservative proposals offer no guarantee that post-16 budgets will not continue to be robbed to pay for growth lower down the school system: but does Labour promise any better?

Some have argued that if pre- and post-16 provision is within the same ringfence that is exactly what will happen so it is worth looking carefully at what the Labour statement says — “Labour will transform FE colleges: because we will ringfence the 16 to 19 FE, sixth forms and apprenticeships budget — ensuring that it rises in line with inflation — we can support the reform of FE colleges into new Institutes of Technical Education.”

This statement, repeated in slightly different ways, does suggest real terms protection for the post-16 budget. Whether college budgets are protected however depends on what happens to apprenticeship funding — and that is where another difference seems to be emerging.

Labour has repeated a commitment to restrict apprenticeships to provision at level three and added to that a ‘guarantee’ that anyone who ‘gets the grades’ would be able to start one.

Getting the grades seems to be defined as two A-levels, so the future of 16 to 18 apprenticeship provision, much of which (hairdressing and construction particularly) is at level two, would appear to be bleak.

The Conservatives by contrast have proposed to create 3m apprenticeships without much detail on how or what will count.

The choice on apprenticeship policy seems to be between a Conservative proposal that is generally vague and a Labour one that is quite precise but with a big hole at its centre.

What the FE sector needs to know is what exactly is proposed for those young people who are not doing A-levels prior to choosing between a degree or a high status apprenticeship at age 18.

If the apprenticeship route is cut off, and FE colleges are steered towards work at levels three and four to become Institutes of Technical Education, what is the newly ring-fenced 16-18 budget for?