If your skills strategy isn’t funding – it’s not worth talking about

However good a national skills strategy looks on paper, it simply can’t be delivered by a system on the brink of financial collapse, says Mark Dawe

However good a national skills strategy looks on paper, it simply can’t be delivered by a system on the brink of financial collapse, says Mark Dawe

29 Sep 2023, 5:00

In this time of crisis, and it is a crisis, there should be one message and one alone coming from our political leaders. That message is more funding.

To be specific, we need to see an increase by a minimum increase of 10 per cent across all FE funding, distributed through per-learner funding. This needs to happen now. Not in months. Not after another review. Not after a general election. Now!

Yes, we need a coherent government skills strategy, but that is not what the sector is crying out for. I talk to leaders across the sector and the message is clear: Current funding is not enough to meet the minimum expectations of employers, learners and Ofsted.

Providers are not asking for gold-plating here. They just want to offer a high-quality experience that boosts learning and transforms lives. But the cost increases everyone is facing make that impossible.

This is not news to anyone. There is no point feeding the public headlines about ambitions for the future while the system that delivers it collapses around us. Policy makers can design whatever skills system they like on paper; without funding, it will fail our young people, adult learners and the economy, hurting the most disadvantaged first.

There is not point trumpeting the amount of funding that is available either. However plentiful it sounds to the layperson, the sector needs more. It won’t be fobbed off with standard responses about numbers of billions or the biggest investment ever. There simply isn’t enough, and too much of what there is doesn’t make it to the frontline. The problem is the amount of funding made available per learner per course. 

Providers can increase group sizes, reduce programme hours, increase staff delivery hours and wipe out other expenditures. But all that was already happening before we faced spiralling costs, increased regulation and increasing employer and learner expectations.

We have reached a critical point. Providers are going bankrupt, the range of provision is being slashed and all I hear as I travel the country is: “Mark, I have nothing left to cut”.

Generally, the learners that need FE the most are the poorest funded and the first to lose opportunity. Apprenticeships are part of the solution, but they are far from the whole solution. The whole adult skills system is in a perilous state.

There is no space left for innovation and efficiency

Funny enough, I don’t hear complaints about lack of opportunities for management degree apprenticeships, but I do hear plenty about the challenges faced by the care, childcare, hospitality and retail sectors – the very jobs we classed as essential during the pandemic and asked so much sacrifice from.

These are entry-level jobs that are vital for the overall performance of our economy. So let’s get real here. Yes, degree apprenticeships are fantastic and should be encouraged. And yes, far more university students should be doing a degree apprenticeship. But is the maximum funding of £27,000 really causing a crisis and the withdrawal of provision?

And by the way, in everyone else’s book, degree-level apprenticeships are HE, not FE.  You can’t offer a degree apprenticeship without degree-awarding powers. So why aren’t HE putting their hands in their pockets?

I realise there is no ‘magic money tree’, so it’s time to compromise.

If there is no more money and the system needs more funding per learner, we have to lower the number of learners the sector caters for. If it seems crazy to be arguing for lower numbers when skills are at the top of everyone’s agenda, that’s because it is. But the mad reality we find ourselves in is that without it we will see providers continuing to go bust, colleges in deficit and the quality of delivery declining.

Ofsted have been explicit: Poor funding is already impacting quality. There is no point in further supercharging numbers if the price per learner does not allow for the expected quality of delivery to happen.

FE has always had a lower funding than the rest of the education system and it deserves praise for creating innovative and efficient ways of maintaining quality. But there is no space left for innovation and efficiency.

So if your skills strategy isn’t to fund the sector, it is no strategy at all.

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