Real money to close Britain's skills gap

July 24, 1998

Welcome spending spree. Universities, science and further education say what more money will mean

FEW working in post-compulsory education can begrudge further education a decent share of the largesse from the comprehensive spending review. We have waited a long time for it and we will do a great deal with it.

To economic illiterates such as myself, Pounds 19 billion sounds as though you could probably colonise Jupiter and have change. But we should not get too excited because of a) inflation, b) it is the figure for three years, and c) most of it will have to go to local education authorities to improve schools.

But it is good news. It is right to emphasise nursery and primary provision. Raising standards, reducing exclusions, securing smaller classes, improving buildings and facilities, and modernising contracts and delivery are necessary. Improving pay too - but intelligent trade unionists must know that the only route to better levels of pay is through trading-in those anachronistic privileges.

In the post-compulsory sector, figures suggest that there will be 80,000 new places in universities and 420,000 more in further education. Quite why this should earn Pounds 255 million more for further education against Pounds 280 million for higher education escapes me.

In further education we will not quibble too much. The idea that FE is not everything that does not happen in schools and universities is dead. Helena Kennedy became our most valuable ally with Learning Works, recognising FE's role as the engine of economic renewal and social cohesion.

We are, if not the only people working with Bob Fryer's under-represented groups (Learning for the 21st Century), by far the biggest of those striving in those areas, as well as the biggest purveyors of A levels and the second biggest of higher education. The gap between skilled and unskilled has widened. An estimated eight million people are functionally illiterate. The socio-economic profile of higher education illustrates worsening exclusivity. In these circumstances further education is vital investment, and it has the shortest pay-back time.

Most FE students are adults: a large proportion are parents. The colleges are the only genuinely comprehensive part of the entire system: 3.9 million students in 1996-97, studying everything from basic literacy to degrees and working with schools, industry, universities. According to the parliamentary select committee, since incorporation we have had almost 30 per cent more students while funding has been cut by per cent.

The pressure has been intense, and remains so in large parts of the sector. But it is the country, not just colleges, that will benefit from the turning of the tide.

Further education is central to the delivery of lifelong learning. Its role has been recognised in these spending plans. Our house is a touch closer to being in order, with some good national appointments and the prospect of a better industrial relations climate. Baron Hardup has come good, and we seem to have found our Prince Charming. All may yet be well.

Colin Flint. Principal of Solihull College.

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