Cash and questions

November 19, 1999

The fight over which funding system is most fair reveals tensions over who does and who should control post-16 education, writes Keith Scribbins

Funding systems and salary systems have something in common. For both, simplicity is the enemy of equity. The trouble is that the search for fairness and comprehensiveness can make the system so complex that all you see is the complexity and never the equity. The wood gets obscured by the trees, and today, when accountability calls for decisions on public expenditure to be like justice - not just done but seen to be done - we have a conundrum. Can politicians and their quangos create a system that has just enough complexity to be fair but not so much as to be obscure?

At its easiest, this question is set in the context of one funding system. The developments made by Sir Williams Stubbs and his successor, David Melville, at the Further Education Funding Council for England have strong hallmarks of equity (remember the convergence debate?) and complexity. The system, complex at the start, has been modified over the years to achieve more social goals - the arrangements for the funding of special needs education being but one example. From time to time, the system has responded perhaps too fast to the fashion of the moment and has then had to be modified again as the moment and the fashion pass - franchising being the best example of this "change and decay" trend. But overall, the system has achieved the big aims set for it - spectacular growth, improved participation and a highly consultative style that has engaged the colleges (or at least those in them who can understand the funding questions) in shaping their own destiny.

Today, the question of simplicity versus equity is set in a different context: the choice between funding systems.

The government white paper Learning to Succeed has created the context in which a choice has to be made between the competing models of funding developed so far, and with that competition goes the competition about who does, and who should, control post-16 education.

There is little doubt that round one has gone to the FEFC. The government's announcement that Coventry is to be the base for the new Learning and Skills Council, that the Training and Standards Council will be absorbed into the post-16 super quango and that the funding of what we have called education and training will be united, are all signs of FEFC success.

If all of this means that we shall see a united system of funding under an FEFC-style bureaucracy, there should be some rejoicing, not just in Coventry, but in the country generally. If you want to know where (some of) the power is - follow the money. The achievement of uniting the funding of education and training post-16 will be a highly significant step by this government, and providing the formula is rendered less rather than more complex, could, as a result, be a triumph for rationality over emotion. To put it another way - the battle for the bureaucracy of funding is likely to be won by a system that has shown itself to value equity and stimulate growth.

The politics of bureaucracy is one thing, but the politics of politics is another. The counterbalance is the role of employers in the new local councils. The government's view here was forecast in its approach to reforming the instrument and articles of colleges. There, the business interest was retained, but its dominance reduced, giving way to a wider social base of stakeholders: the community, staff, students and, of course, the local authorities. Will a similar formula dominate the constitution of the national and local councils? Business leaders can afford to be bullish about their role. The Confederation of British Industry has made it clear that business should have a leading role in the 47 local councils, and the government has said yes, indicating that employers will make up the largest minority of local skills council members.

A fly in that ointment emerges when one recalls that almost simultaneous airing of views by Stephen Byers, the trade and industry secretary. Industry, it seems, is giving less time to training, and it has to be acknowledged that in comparison with European counterparts, British firms contribute little in the way of funds. So in the politics of control of the skills councils, will employers be there to see that public education and training money is spent in ways that employers want, or is their involvement a gentle prelude to the expectation of a more fulsome expenditure commitment by them? Are they customers, donors or special citizens - or perhaps all three? It is crucial that in the battle for control we do not waste the achievements made in recent years by the establishment of the training and enterprise council movement and the involvement of employers in the governance of education.

What uniting education and training funding does not solve is the disparity between this system and that of the school sector. Significantly, the Commons Education and Employment Select Committee fears that differences in the funding of post-16 school and college education will persist.

All these themes are connected, and the white paper recognises this and provides one of the best recent analyses of the problems. If the solutions are as connected, the white paper and decisions based on it will be a milestone indeed.

Keith Scribbins is chief executive of Coombe Lodge, a consultancy and training provider owned by a consortium of shareholders in further and higher education.

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