With the Chancellor’s Autumn Financial Statement now out of the way, budgets are being set for different parts of the education system.

First out of the blocks has been the FE and adult skills sector where BIS has announced an overall budget of £3.8bn for 2012/13, dropping as per previous announcements to £3.4bn for 2013/14 and £3.3bn for 2014/15.

Nor might it stop there for the Chancellor also confirmed in his Autumn Statement that spending limits will remain for at least a further two years beyond the current cycle, up in other words potentially to 2015/16.

We’re therefore in for a long haul and as the Institute for Fiscal Studies put it, “one begins to run out of superlatives for describing quite how unprecedented (the situation) is.”

Yet the sector may be able to draw some comfort from three other factors. First that some additional money will be available for at least the next two years from the European Social Fund and, from 2013, from the new FE loans system.

Second, that while the overall envelope may be getting smaller, some elements, notably currently apprenticeships and Learner Support, continue to receive some strong funding.

And third, as the Chancellor also indicated, the Government is launching a number of initiatives under its growth strategy such as the Youth Contract and the Regional Growth Fund in which the FE sector will play a key role and may attract additional resources.

some additional money will be available for at least the next two years”

But these days, funding comes as part of a wider package and the other part of the package is further system reform.

Much of what’s in the reform document released alongside the Investment Statement is fairly familiar having been under consultation and discussion for much of the last few months but there are perhaps a few less familiar if not less expected aspects. They include the following.

First, in the area of opening up higher level vocational education, where in an effort to strengthen the ladder between F and HE, the Dept appears to be re-opening the CATs bag. “We therefore intend to invite collaborative proposals to increase credit accumulation and transfer (CAT) opportunities across further and higher education.” This it seems will form part of what is being called a new ‘Higher Vocational Education’ portfolio which may in turn lead to re-adoption of the nomenclature of College of F and HE.

Second, and in a similar vein, the Dept is mirroring for the FE world the model being adopted in higher education to help prospective students get better advance intelligence about courses, by advocating the use of ‘common information sets’ and quality comparison information.

Third, adult literacy and numeracy, or English and maths as it’s now to be known where following further research evidence, concerns remain that progress continues to be slow and where as a result the Dept appears keen to inject some new thinking and energy.

This means piloting a different funding model, one that reflects progress made, as well as considering the use of more flexible, unit-based stepping stones towards GCSE.

Fourth, the announcement that an independent Commission on Adult Education and Vocational Pedagogy will be established from next April.

This is something that Alison Wolf had proposed for 14-19 learning and will bring together a wide range of key stakeholders, professional bodies and practitioners to ‘set out the standard expected of a good learning opportunity’ and ‘define a range of effective pedagogical approaches.’

The latter may be more easy to determine than the former and the question will remain as to how far you can bottle this sort of expertise up and release it when necessary but clearly the Government is keen to respond to reports such as the latest Annual Ofsted report which suggest that the quality of teaching in post-16 education can be patchy. The Commission and practitioner groups could play a big part in raising the game here.

Fifth, the intention to pilot community learning trusts next year with a view to possible roll-out the year after. Adult and community learning remains the poor relation of the adult learning world but this Government, like previous ones, recognises how important this local heartbeat of activity is.

The trust model sits within the Big Society concept and we shan’t know exactly what form the trusts will take until the prospectus is released next year but it remains an interesting model.

Steve Besley is Head of Policy at Pearson. He tweets @SteveBesley

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