Hold on – there’s a hitch in the £500m promise

Sunday morning politics show devotees will recognise that there’s usually a theme that underpins the headlines – be it a leak, an announcement, heaven forbid a scandal – but so infrequently is this theme directly related to the FE world. This weekend, FE was the story.

And while all the talk of ‘T-levels’ was something of a distraction, the announcement that the upcoming budget will bring new investment in FE has been warmly received by all parts of the sector. There’s little doubt that it’s needed – after significant cuts to budgets over the last parliament and an unfavourable international comparison of post-16 funding, there’s an audible sigh of relief.

Any why is it so important? We all read it, that dreaded line in the ministerial foreword to the ‘Post-16 Skills Plan’: “We accept and will implement all of the Sainsbury panel’s proposals, unequivocally where that is possible within current budget constraints” and our hearts sank. More reform, more investment required yet no money. A recipe for disaster.

So the announcement of additional funding is certainly a welcome step in the right direction. However (and with apologies for putting the obligatory damper on the ebullience of the weekend) there are still challenges ahead.

Although the headlines talked of an additional £500 million, it’s our job to look at the detail, and here’s the first thing to note: there is a phased implementation. The first additional investment of £100m will be made in 2019/20 for teaching the first two pathfinder routes. Investment will then be increased year on year until all the new technical routes are available in 2022, at which time the additional annual investment will be ‘over £500m’. I promise at this point I tried not to think of the emperor’s new clothes, but (unless someone made a change to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act without telling me) with the next general election in May 2020, that’s only £100m promised within this parliament – and an additional £500+ million that cannot yet be taken for granted.

The extra £100m investment that will come in 2019/20 will be vital in securing the effective implementation of the new technical routes. Anyone who has experienced a change programme in the sector before (and we’ve had a few) will know that there will be expenditure across many budget lines, from potential equipment costs to ensure that colleges can deliver the new employer-designed standards, to CPD for the workforce, to marketing and promotion of the courses, to working with local employers and critically, to developing relationships for work placements.

And these placements will present a significant challenge. When I speak to any member of staff from a school, college or training provider that is involved in finding work experience placements, they all tell similar stories of hard work, many conversations, multiple knockbacks and difficulty reaching the right person within organisations. Work experience placements are hard to find. Even the Treasury press release on the budget announcement reinforced the challenge of the more substantial work placement that will form a mandatory part of the technical route. It stated that “66% of employers consider work experience important for those entering the labour market, yet only 30% offer work experience”. I don’t think anyone would argue about the value of experience in the workplace or the impact that a good placement can have, however, there was nothing in the release that would suggest ways of overcoming existing barriers.

The recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report reminded us, “alongside many policy changes, 16–18 education has been the only area of education spending to see reductions in resources as a result of recent Spending Reviews”. This has created a challenging financial settlement for the sector. However welcome the additional funding is, the apprenticeship reforms have shown us the relative cost and complexity of some employer-designed models. Those involved in the design and development of these new technical routes must consider the cost implications of these new courses, or else the additional investment could end up being spent on the wrong things.

And for those in the sector offering A-Levels or Applied General qualifications, the budget announcements offered little respite. The additional funding is explicitly linked to the implementation of the technical routes. So that ‘bigger story’ from the IFS report still contains some stark warnings.

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