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Exclusive with Stephen Williams MP

Politicians are often asked how we would spend vast budgets, which taken at face value are inconceivable. How would I spend £11 billion? Well, I could do with a new suit and my flat needs redecorating”¦oh, FE budget you say?

In seriousness the money allocated for Further Education is stretched and colleges understandably need every penny and more. The government’s White Paper earlier this year mercifully highlighted the importance of FE to society and the economy. Indeed, many in the sector expressed approval that it is finally being taken seriously. FE is vital to improve the staying on rates for 16-19 year olds, an area where we lag well behind many other developed nations. Increasing staying on rates will, in turn, improve the skills base for the economy, improve participation levels in Higher Education and overall improve social mobility.

Yet the financial concerns remain. It is pleasing that the government has conceded that the funding gap between schools and colleges exists; a fact known in the sector for quite some time, but a commitment ought to be made to fully close the gap. It is ridiculous that an identical course receives less support purely by virtue of it taking place in a college and not a school.

An area that the government has failed to acknowledge, let alone tackle, is the crisis in funding for adult education. As the government “re-prioritises” its focus on FE, vital courses are being scrapped or becoming unaffordable. £55million has been cut from the adult learning budget in this year alone. Of course we need to make sure young people have relevant skills for the economy; likewise working adults need to secure basic numeracy and English skills. However, implementing targets and ring-fenced funding does not give local providers the necessary flexibility to provide training according to local needs.

This lack of local flexibility (and accountability) relates to the need for a re-assessment of the wider structure of FE. The Education and Skills Select Committee recently described this as a “complex, unwieldy morass of planning, funding and stakeholders bodies.” The government have made some small moves in the right direction, streamlining to a single inspectorate agency for example. Yet the problem of the locally unresponsive, unwieldy and costly structure remains. The administrative costs of the Learning and Skills Council last year was over £233million, with over £255m provided for administration in 2006-07.

Alan Johnson has described cuts to adult courses as effecting “over-subsidised flower-arranging” or tai-chi. This is an aunt sally. For starters, many of the cuts are adversely affecting key courses in some of the most deprived communities. The Association of Colleges has estimated that 200 000 classes will be cut across a range of subjects; these include A-level classes, classes for IT, languages and even basic skills for those with learning disabilities.

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For a sound bite on the benefits of adult education to the individual you ironically need look no further than the Prime Minister, who stated in 2005 that:

“Learning is good for your health, your self esteem and your employability, whatever your age, status or profession.”

However, the government have failed to recognise that it is also good for the economy. Adult learning can improve communication skills, reduce time off work for illness, reduce reliance on benefits and make for a more able workforce. As we become increasingly reliant on an aging population the government is being short sighted in its current funding priorities.

Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol-West; Shadow Minister for Higher and Further Education; Member of the Education and Skills select committee.

Tomorrow: Lawrence Miles, Chief Officer with the Independent Organisation For Licenced Verifiers and Assessors (IVA), continues the debate exclusively to FE News

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