Councils have attacked the inflexible funding rules of the prime minister’s “short-termist” flagship maths programme after new figures revealed that a third of the money allocated in its first year went unspent.
Multiply, Rishi Sunak’s adult maths education programme, committed to provide £559 million across three financial years to the end of 2024-25 from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
The scheme offers free courses for adults who did not achieve a grade C or above in GCSE maths or an equivalent level 2 qualification.
But, in its first year of delivery, £30.3 million of the £81 million awarded was clawed back by the Department for Education and returned to the Treasury, according to data obtained by local government expert Jack Shaw through a Freedom of Information request.
Councils that returned the largest proportion of their funding told FE Week that this was down to the terms and conditions of the funding: money was handed out over halfway through the 2022-23 financial year and councils were not allowed to roll over any that was unused.
“It’s clearly problematic,” Shaw told FE Week. “Multiply is described as part of the Shared Prosperity Fund, but the non-Multiply element of the SPF was allowed to be rolled over, and this wasn’t.
“The government was meant to allocate this for the financial year of 2022-23, but authorities received it well into the financial year – leaving them somewhere in the region of six months to plan, stand up, deliver and wind down programmes.”
He said the scheme was not unique in having a large amount of underspending in the first year, adding that this reflects a “systemic challenge that Whitehall is too short-termist and doesn’t have an adequate appreciation of what implementation involves”.
Sunak, who launched the Multiply scheme when he was chancellor, used his speech at this week’s Conservative party conference to criticise the political system being heavily focused on “short-term advantage, not long-term success”.
Sue Pember, director for policy and external relations at adult education provider network Holex, said it was “disheartening” to hear about local and combined authorities returning funds but insisted the scheme had been “embraced as a valuable source of funding for numeracy, igniting innovation and reaching thousands of learners”.
She added that over 45,000 people participated in the scheme in its introductory year, which is a “remarkable achievement, especially considering the programme’s rapid launch without development funding or established infrastructures”.
DfE approval delayed Multiply roll-out
Councils complained that the roll-out of the scheme was delayed as their investment plans could not be implemented without approval from the DfE.
A Greater Manchester Combined Authority spokesperson said the department only approved their investment plan in the second half of 2022, “meaning that recruitment, procurement and delivery of the programme was not finalised and implemented until the fourth quarter of the financial year”.
In Greater Manchester, 331 residents were recruited onto the scheme. The combined authority received £4.3 million for the first year and returned £3 million (69 per cent) of it to the Treasury.
Hampshire Country Council said waiting for the DfE to approve its plan, plus procurement time, meant it did not start delivery until January 2023.
A spokesperson said the county council supported 1,607 individuals on Multiply from January to March 2023, of which 998 were parents of children in Hampshire schools.
“We have a number of target groups on Multiply, including local businesses, parents, refugees and those with a lived experience of the criminal justice system,” the spokesperson said, adding that it has supported 1,225 people so far in year two, for which it has received £2 million in funding.
Oxfordshire County Council handed back the largest proportion of its year-one funding, returning £717,555 (92 per cent) of the £778,200 allocated. Its first year consisted of “research and planning” so the money was not required, a spokesperson told FE Week.
Warwickshire Country Council gave back £503,650 (66 per cent) of its £768,922 allocation. A council spokesperson said the funding was used to enrol 400 learners.
Pember said: “Challenges arose from not funding through established adult education budget routes, necessitating some councils and combined authorities having to instigate tender processes. This slowed down the process of student recruitment.”