The government has refused to share the evidence used to justify its controversial adult education clawback plans – fuelling suspicion among sector leaders.
Principals have demanded transparency after the Department for Education said that any college or community learning provider which delivers less than 90 per cent of its national adult education allocation this year must repay funds.
The DfE and skills minister Gillian Keegan, who FE Week previously revealed was forced into the decision by the Treasury, have repeatedly said their data shows the 90 per cent threshold is a “fair representation of the providers’ average forecasted delivery for the 2020/21 academic year”.
FE Week requested the evidence to back up this claim under the Freedom of Information Act, but the department has refused to hand it over.
In its response, the DfE admits there is a “general public interest” in disclosure.
However, the request was turned down on the grounds that “it relates to the formulation or development of government policy”.
It adds: “We are monitoring the performance of the adult education budget (AEB) delivery during 2020 to 2021 funding year and until the year is fully reconciled the policy is being monitored, lessons will be learnt, and future decisions may still depend on the use of the data as a baseline.
“We will also be using this data as a baseline for future policy decisions, and we believe it is in the wider public interest that we have the space and time to ensure this future work is carried out effectively.”
Leicester College faces having to pay back £4 million under the plans and told FE Week it also had a similar FOI request rejected by the DfE.
A spokesperson for the college said it was “very disappointing that the Education and Skills Funding Agency has so far declined to provide information that should be readily available to it and is clearly in the public interest”.
Ian Pryce, chief executive of the Bedford College Group, previously called for the DfE to share the evidence.
After hearing of the department’s secrecy, he said: “There wouldn’t be the uproar if the evidence supported the 90% average. Why wouldn’t you share the data if it supports that figure?
“From college returns it should be easy to spot colleges whose AEB recruitment has been affected by lockdown and spot any that have simply taken their foot off the gas assuming a low threshold.
“The decision feels arbitrary, and the response doesn’t rectify that.”
‘Why wouldn’t you share the data if it supports that figure?’
The Association of Colleges collected data itself in April from a third of colleges and found the average performance reported was 77 per cent – amounting to a total clawback of £59 million.
Deputy chief executive Julian Gravatt explained that, while “recognising there are still some months to go, and the DfE hoped the high threshold would encourage colleges to increase activity – it is very unlikely that colleges will be able to make up for the severe disruption caused by the long spring lockdown”.
Adult and community learning providers are also being stung by the clawback plans.
Their membership body, HOLEX, recently ran a poll and found the majority of members will hit between 60 and 80 per cent delivery.
Sue Pember, a former director of FE funding in the DfE who is now the policy director of HOLEX, said her organisation had also asked the government to publish its evidence because there is a “suspicion that the data was not disaggregated and therefore the impact on adult community and institutions was not seen”.
She added: “It is a shame the DfE refuses to share the information as it is adding to that suspicion.”
Since the threshold was announced in March, colleges have written to the prime minister requesting that he intervenes and warning that the plans risk courses being scrapped and jobs lost.
The all-party parliamentary group on FE has also written to education secretary Gavin Williamson to call for a reversal, or at least to allow colleges to submit business cases to plead for a clawback exemption.