Chancellor George Osborne’s FE funding protection ‘a cut in real terms’ — Shadow Skills Minister Gordon Marsden

Shadow Skills Minister Gordon Marsden was a key speaker in an Opposition Day debate last week as he aired FE funding concerns, and Wednesday’s Budget did nothing to ease those concerns, as he explains.

On Wednesday we saw the broad campaign I and others have put on government on FE funding, not least in our Opposition Day debate last week, forcing Chancellor George Osborne to pause on accelerating further cuts on those already suffered.

But ministers are still leaving FE without the proper, strategic support it needs to fulfil the aspirations of young and older learners.

The Chancellor tried to imply he’d protect FE funding. But a cash terms freeze in 16 to 19 funding and adult skills is a cut in real terms.

Freezing 16 to 19 funding for four years, at a time when colleges are facing huge upheaval and instability from area reviews is a recipe for continuing crises.

The Treasury’s Blue Book accompanying the Spending Review says there will be further savings here if young people have two-year courses reduced to one-year. The net effect is less money and more barriers to opportunities for our young people.

And what of the darker corners in Osborne’s statement? The Treasury’s Blue Book tries to claim the core adult skills budget is protected at £1.5bn. What’s this made up of? Is it counting the new loans scheme for 19 to 23-year-olds which may not be taken up? The experience with 24+ loans suggests potential real problems in using them.

Freezing 16 to 19 funding for four years, at a time when colleges are facing huge upheaval and instability from area reviews is a recipe for continuing crises

Neither the Chancellor nor BIS’s own press release explained the change. What will it mean for 19 to 23-year-olds being able to access free level three training?

The Treasury document referred to 40,000 learners affected by loans but currently 217,000 19 to 24-year-olds are taking these courses.

We urgently need to know who is affected and the status of free level three training. Restricting or abolishing grants will be a huge disincentive to young people in this vulnerable age group.

The Chancellor’s announcement on the apprenticeship levy leaves huge questions. Is this a potential ‘big bang’ fiasco? It needs to go forward carefully with measured agreement from the various sectors.

It must protect SMEs and also current investment in apprenticeships, making sure great existing schemes run by companies don’t get crowded out. It must be genuine extra money, not simply a further disguised BIS funding cut, and one where companies and their employees are reassured and incentivised.

Allowing sixth corm colleges VAT relief by becoming academies would benefit them financially. But it’s critical their success and innovation isn’t curbed by micromanagement from the Department for Education or meddling with the accountability and standards they currently deliver.

As I said during our Opposition Day debate on FE last week in the House of Commons, the government’s rhetoric on skills and training is simply not matched by its actions.

It talks the talk on energising technical and professional skills, then fails to deliver a strong mechanism for level four work experience in schools. It claims to be focused on productivity, but then undermines those key drivers of growth — colleges and providers — by rushed area reviews.

It pontificates about social mobility opportunities and equalities, but then roll out a series of cuts in Esol and adult skills, for example, often leaving the disadvantaged even further removed from good jobs and training, while colleges and schools are left struggling to fund the infrastructure for disabled young learners and other groups.

Ministers have failed to learn the negative cumulative effect of such cuts — as we saw with EMA — in stifling opportunities and social mobility.

I told Skills Minister Nick Boles in our Commons debate: ‘If the government will the ends, they must will the means. Otherwise, meanness and lack of focus will leave thousands of young people at risk of having their life chances shredded by the ignorance or incompetence of this government.’

For now they’ve been forced to row back on some of this. But they need to be watched like hawks – so learners, younger and older, and the FE sector, don’t fall off the cliff.

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