When Skills Funding Agency (SFA) replaced the Learning and Skills Council in April 2010 a critical difference in function was a very public end to central planning.
This was accelerated by the coalition government when in June 2010 they scrapped the Summary Statement of Activity (a national template for provider plans) and introduced the ‘freedoms and flexibilites’ of a single Adult Skills Budget.
Yet, take a forensic look at how the SFA have been managing the £4bn budget, and you would be forgiven for thinking they did not want anyone else to stick to a plan either.
• In August colleges are unexpectedly told that despite policy announcements the previous November to the contrary, many unemployed learners on ‘wider benefit’s’ might remain eligible for full funding after all.
• In November colleges unexpectedly start being offered millions by the SFA to be spent on NEETs before the end of the academic year. With no explanation as to how this would be recorded nor monitored, the SFA simply told FE Week: “The funding forms part of the existing Adult Skills Budget that is being redeployed as part of our normal quarterly performance review”.
• In March colleges are unexpectedly given a share of £23 million in Discretionary Learner Support funding, to be spent before August. One principal told FE Week: “getting that sort of sum of money, in an unplanned way late in the year, just isn’t doing anybody any favour”.
• In April FE Week analysis of an SFA document shows that overall in-year allocations have increased a staggering £240 million since August. Newham College, for example, has received an in-year increase of more than £4m.
• In May the SFA unexpectedly announce they are adjusting 797 qualification funding rates with just three months of the year remaining. All 797 went up, some by more than 400 per cent. (See page 2 in the next edition of FE Week).
So it seems colleges and training providers are getting almost monthly calls from their friendly Skills Funding Agency account manager. If so, does the Agency say something like:
Forget the reduced funding rates and cut to your allocation while you were planning your courses, or that you made redundancies to find efficiencies. Now that your courses have started can you help us out? We have a couple of hundred million in unspent funding to offload. Sound good?”
It may sound good, but how can providers be expected to sensibly plan the resources to deliver high quality courses with all these short-term ‘unexpected’ giveaways?
One claim from the SFA is these in-year increases reward success, and providers don’t earn the funding unless the courses are actually delivered. But this is not true. When funding went unspent last year the SFA said: “A tolerance of three per cent will be applied to the final out turn for 2010/11, so clawback will be waived for providers who have delivered 97 per cent or more.”
The other problem is that without an enforceable plan, colleges and providers can and do decide to use the funding for courses that the Skills Funding Agency do not want to purchase. For example, it is clear that 25+ apprenticeships starts continue to grow exponentially whilst the high priority 16-24 year-old starts have stalled.
So despite the end to central planning, when allocating funding for next year the SFA said that they don’t want “maintenance of current recruitment levels for those aged over 25” and “will monitor the pattern and volume of 25+ Apprenticeship delivery in-year”. Case of the SFA wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too?
Few support the principle of central control or giving money back to the Treasury, but Agitator sees a sector increasingly struggling to see the point of doing their own business planning much beyond lunch, let alone for the next academic year.