I confess that I felt pretty jittery all morning on Wednesday 20 October 2010, and from contact with various colleagues across further education and skills, I gauged that the pre-spending review blues were pretty widespread.
In music, the blues are characterised by a dynamic shift between major and minor scales. I think we all agree that the major concern for the country and for the government is building our way out of recession. In musical terms, this is the major scale.
However, as music aficionados know, the blue note in the frequently encountered 12-bar blues progression is sung or played, flattened or gradually bent in relation to the pitch of the major scale, for expressive purposes. Some of the spending review's 'flattening' announcements on further education and skills could, in my view, unless we are all very creative, vigilant and lucky, 'bend' us away from achieving rapid economic recovery.
There are, however, some announcements that are attuned immediately to the major scale drive for economic growth. So, just like the emotional bitter and a little sweet range of the blues, I hope there are deep resonances with naming and finding ways to overcome adversities.
Twelve points from spending review announcement that may slow or can really help build economic recovery include:
- A 25 per cent reduction in funding overall for further education and skills over the four years, which seems to treat our sector as an overhead rather than a vital public investment. This is tough. Overcoming this will need the countermeasure of individuals and employers being prepared to invest themselves to compensate for the loss of public funds.
- The consequent potential for a diminished range of provision for young people and adults, unless teachers and trainers and colleges and providers are bold and create the culture whereby individuals and employers see each participant's investment of time and money as worthwhile and giving a good return. IfL aims to help teachers and trainers promote their professional credentials and the quality and value of their courses.
- Reductions to key Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) activities, which include ending Train to Gain and replacing it with a small and medium enterprise (SME) focused training programme. This could give a positive opportunity for teachers and trainers to develop tailored programmes for particular SMEs in their locality, with funding support. Most employers are SMEs, and there is potential for this engine for the economy to benefit. In addition, teachers and trainers can develop and design programmes to meet the needs of larger employers, for which they will need to pay.
- Further education students aged 24 and over studying for a level 3 qualification will be asked to pay fees. Students will be supported by the offer of a government-backed loan, where repayments will be dependent on their income, protecting those with lower earnings. Teachers and trainers will be key to making a loan seem a worthwhile long-term investment. It is not clear yet how initial teacher training will be affected, but there is a growing worry that the flow into teaching will be staunched.
- The need for more apprentices and up to an additional 75,000 apprenticeship places by the end of the spending review period. This gives the opportunity for teachers and trainers to draw on Ofsted's very recent report on excellence in apprenticeships and deliver the very best apprenticeship experience and success to more young people and adults.
- The government is removing the entitlement to free training for a first full level 2 qualification for those over 25. This will need to be overcome by teachers and trainers devising level 2 programmes for adults that they will value and pay for, as well as there being a robust fee remission scheme for those on no or low incomes nationally and locally.
- There will be an end to English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) funding for people not in settled communities. There is a clear signal that the government does value ESOL and wishes to fund it for settled communities. We understand that the term 'settled communities' is being defined.
- The government will continue to support basic skills provision, so that those left behind first time around can continue to gain basic numeracy and literacy skills. This is good news for learners, for the economy and for families where one or both parents have poor basic skills.
- BIS will continue to support adult and community learning. This is really good news for local communities and we hope that there will be a flourishing of diverse opportunities for learning locally, and that expert teachers, who are nearly all part time, will have the chance to devise courses and experiences that help inspire adults and engage them in learning for its own sake or for employment, and especially those who have had little chance to succeed in education before in their lives.
- BIS aims to reduce the complexity and bureaucracy that hampers providers from responding to community needs.
- The reworked educational maintenance allowance (EMA) with reductions. This is very tough. One commentator indicated that about 70 per cent of students nationally receive EMAs and many are on the highest level of £30 a week. Both recruitment and retention are likely to suffer, and so success for young people. This runs counter to promoting the economy and at this point seems very hard to overcome, although the suggested small sum for institutions, for hardship, may help a little.
- The vision and commitment of the further education and skills minister, John Hayes, to further education, despite the context of a very harsh spending review overall, gives promise that in developing its new skills strategy BIS will do whatever it can, with the level of public spending available, to keep further education and skills and vocational education central to its ambitions.
Where do teachers and trainers find themselves? The spending review 12-bar blues progression, including its many aching counterpunctual tensions, demands that professional teachers and trainers working in the further education and skills sector be just that – progressive. Teachers and trainers are expected to make the best we can out of the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves. IfL is committed to supporting members and backing each teacher and trainer and their commitment to doing their professional best for each and every young and adult learner.
The uplifting debate on lifelong learning in the House of Lords on 19 October 2010 was characterised by further education being perceived as valuable. We all recognise how hard it is to strike the right balance, as the government determinedly works to reduce the deficit. Lord Young of Norwood Green clearly acknowledged this when he said, "I hope that the government will recognise that, in the current climate, investing in adult and further education is an investment for the future. If we do not get it right, we will endanger the recovery."
Toni Fazaeli is the chief executive of the Institute for Learning (IfL), the professional body for teachers, trainers, tutors and student teachers across the further education and skills sector
Read other FE News articles by Toni Fazaeli: