Proposals to change the way traineeship providers are funded were rejected following the government’s eight-week consultation on the issue. Andy Gannon explains what this, plus some of the changes that were sanctioned, means for the sector.

Amid ongoing media rumours of yet more pressure on budgets after the next election and a looming Autumn Statement, this week’s government response to the traineeships funding consultation may have made some slightly more pleasant reading for many in the FE sector.

What seemed, in the summer, to be a consultation heralding potentially wholesale change to the funding system around the relatively new initiative that is traineeships has, it appears, turned into an acknowledgement that we can make better use of data on student outcomes, but that any real change in this area has to be ‘incremental’.

This message alone should allow us some space to rejoice. After being pummelled with reform after reform for the past four years, it seems that some sense has prevailed. You don’t get to assess the benefits of any new initiative if you constantly tinker around with it.

Whether this new-found love of funding stability is a sign that that message has been understood for good, or is simply a sign of political pragmatism six months ahead of a general election will only become clear in time, of course. But, for now, it is a positive.

And, more than that, what the response does include is tinkering which expands the opportunities for young people and employers to engage with traineeships — applying the same criteria to those over 19 as those under 19, increasing eligibility and acknowledging the important possibility that a traineeship may prepare someone for further learning, rather than a job or an apprenticeship.

In our recent Future Colleges report, the 157 Group called for policy change to be tested against four key principles — stable structures, equal treatment, freedom to innovate and durable funding. In some ways, this week’s response meets all four of those criteria.

It doesn’t change the fundamental structure of the programme or its funding system, and it therefore provides some small sense of durability within which providers can plan. It removes some of the artificial age divide at 19, which, as we know, stems from nothing other than the way in which government organises itself and has nothing to do with how young people actually experience the world. And, in emphasising the need for programmes to be individualised, it genuinely encourages innovation.

Many colleges, in particular, will now see real opportunity to expand their traineeship offer

Many colleges, in particular, will now see real opportunity to expand their traineeship offer in partnership with employers of all sizes. And that can only be a good thing.

Aside from the question of political motivation, there remains one fly in the ointment, however. What is really meant by ‘making better use of data on progression and outcomes’?

We are also awaiting the response on the recent BIS consultation around outcome success measures, which was curiously quiet about how these measures might be used, and Ofsted has merely said it will take all measures into account when forming judgments.

History teaches us that, once data is available, we have a tendency to interpret it simplistically — to compile league tables and set minimum standards, and then to reform our funding and accountability systems to enforce the achievement of those standards.

But we all know that learner outcomes are affected by a plethora of factors — including personal and economic ones — of which the quality of their college experience is only one.

‘Making better use of the data’ should mean that we use it to understand this complete picture, and interrogate it intelligently so that it can inform the development not just of our approach to funding and accountability, but to policymaking itself.

Whether our system is mature enough to be able to do that is the one question that this week’s response leaves unanswered.