The funding consultation doesn’t tackle our biggest challenges – but there’s hope

11 Sep 2022, 6:00

FE desperately needs simplified funding lines but this consultation must go further, writes Marguerite Hogg

It didn’t seem like the best time of year to launch a government consultation when most of the college sector was trying to get a summer break.

However, the Department for Education’s second funding and accountability consultation launched at the end of July and there are now only a few weeks left to respond before the 21 September closing date. 

Once you add in the recent political turmoil and the fact there’s now a new prime minister, it might be hard for the department to meet its timetable to bring in all the new funding changes in 2023. 

Our take on the latest consultation is that the funding proposals are modest. 

The sector lives with the burden of multiple funding lines and need some simplification. One principal told me they have over 50 funding likes – and they won’t be on their own!

The DfE hopes to combine the adult education budget and “Free Courses for Jobs” into a “single skills fund” in 2023-4 but this will sit alongside apprenticeships, Multiply, bootcamps and the strategic development fund for a few more years.

The consultation promises a longer-term simplification in 2025 but would still leave apprenticeships as a parallel system.

The background for these plans is last autumn’s spending review.

The Treasury increased spending via the national skills fund but worked on an assumption that inflation wouldn’t exist between 2022 and 2025.

This is putting severe pressure on the skills system and has severely limited the choices available to the DfE in this consultation.

They’d planned to bring in a formula in 2023 to distribute money to the combined authorities but the timetable is being pushed back until the next spending review.

Instead the changes are concentrated on the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s non-devolved budget and on the money that goes between funder and provider.

Many of these changes are sensible but some could be disruptive.

There are a new set of programme uplifts, some of which reflect skills priorities.

There are adjustments to the funding matrix to remove some complexity. There are reforms to non-qualification funding and a planned innovation allowance.

Meanwhile the accountability reforms bring new accountability agreements and a performance dashboard. But, without a fresh approach on audit, form-filling and checking will remain predominant.

Without a fresh approach on audit, form-filling will remain dominant

So lots of detail and plenty of issues to work through. The consultation doesn’t address the biggest challenges faced by college staff and students but there are steps in the right direction.

It is clear that the DfE has listened to responses made back in 2021.

They are delaying the devolved formula because they have insufficient funds to smooth implementation.

They propose a three per cent allowance for innovation.

The performance dashboard has excluded financial health ratings and Ofsted will not be using these in their new inspections.

There are areas of concern that still persist (for example a possibly narrow definition of community learning) but there’s a chance to query and hopefully amend certain details.

Given the challenges that the cost-of-living crisis presents to colleges – not least the negative impact on many of our learners and staff – this consultation is possibly not top of the list for college leaders.

While we are encouraging AoC members to get involved in our response or to respond on behalf of their own colleges, there may be other more pressing matters to attend to. 

The DfE has a consultation response webinar for all stakeholders planned for early September.

We will also be holding our own roundtable discussion on the consultation with DfE and one of our national policy groups in order to unpick certain elements of the consultation.

All in all, the summer break is starting to feel like a long time ago.

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