The financial resilience of the further education sector is no longer a headline risk, according to the Department for Education.
The DfE this week published its annual report and accounts for the year ending March 31 2022, which featured some fresh information on its finances and Covid-19 recovery efforts.
Here are a handful of findings from the report for the FE sector.
Financial resilience concerns “de-escalated”
The DfE believes that the financial resilience of the FE sector is no longer a headline risk, according to the report.
The document said that both higher education and FE risks have been “de-escalated” after appearing in the last two years’ high-risk reports.
But it stressed that “these continue to be discussed at both performance and risk committee and leadership team on a regular basis”.
It comes as funding arrangements remain high on the list of concerns for college leaders as inflation continues to consume budgets, with Association of Colleges chief David Hughes only last week warning that “the funding picture now after more than a decade of austerity is unsustainable and it is obvious action is needed”.
Earlier this month, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the £4 billion annual spend on 19+ education and training was failing to deliver the skills needed for the economy.
Across the wider education sector, teacher workforce delivery and early years sufficiency were two others in last year’s DfE annual report and accounts which no longer feature in the top risks, after both issues “stabilised”.
Its top six risks on the risk register now are loss of public confidence in exams; education recovery efforts; school buildings; vulnerable children attendance and attainment; high needs cost pressures; and cyber security.
More woe for national retraining campaign
The Get Help to Retrain digital scheme launched in July 2019 aimed to help those aged 24 and above with qualifications below degree level into training courses to progress into skilled careers.
Acting as the centrepiece to the £100 million National Retraining Scheme, it instead turned out to be a damp squib with the announcement just a year later that it would be integrated into the new £2.5 billion national skills fund.
The government at the time said it was to “reduce complexity in the system” but it also emerged that a number of regional mayors opted not to take part.
The DfE accounts now reveal that it lost £2.3 million on work for the online system that was “still under development at the time the government shifted priority to a much larger, more comprehensive national skills fund programme of initiatives”.
It added: “Alternative skills initiatives led to the decision to discontinue further work on this programme leading to the disposal of the intangible asset under construction”.
Six-figure loss on college plans
Another loss recorded in the DfE’s accounts was for £665,000 for a project at Milton Keynes College, specifically around the South Central Institute of Technology.
The write-off related to professional fees, the DfE said, adding: “The project was abandoned due to value for money concerns beyond a level acceptable for public funding”.
Students repeating a year
As part of Covid-19 recovery measures, the DfE allowed 16-to-19 providers to offer Year 13 students (or equivalent in FE settings) the chance to repeat a year if they had been badly hit by the pandemic.
DfE figures revealed 1,459 students opted to do so last year.
“This low take up of the programme shows that the repeat year has operated as we intended, being used by a small number of the most affected students,” the report said.
Missing FOI targets
The department failed to respond to more than one in four Freedom of Information requests in time – the second year in a row it has declined performance despite a lower number of requests.
Public organisations, including government departments, have a statutory duty to respond to FOI requests within 20 working days.
But for 2021/22 it only responded to 73 per cent in time across the 2,237 requests it received.
That represents a 5 percentage point fall on the year before, when there were 2,330 requests, and a significant fall on the 88 per cent 20-day response rate in 2019/20 when there were 3,133 requests – 800 more than 2021/22.